It was a night when a section of the Manchester United support once again turned the air heavy with protest and, for a brief while, we wondered whether the Liverpool team would make it into Old Trafford. But when they did and England’s classic fixture, which had been postponed on the Sunday before last following demonstrations by United’s fans against their American owners, crackled to life, it was Liverpool who fashioned what could prove a decisive victory.
They showed poise and character to recover from a sluggish start and, following a see-saw contest, it was left to Mohamed Salah to streak away at the very end to make the points safe. After a turbulent season, Liverpool now have control of their own destiny with regard to a Champions League finish. If they can finish with wins over West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace, they will most likely get what they want – with Chelsea and Leicester to meet next Tuesday and one or both set to drop points.
Liverpool came alive midway through the first-half and they deserved their win, the platform for which was laid by a wonderful Diogo Jota goal and two from Roberto Firmino. For United, who are already certain of a top-four place, there was only misery – outside the stadium and on the pitch. Play like this and they will not win the Europa League final against Villarreal.
The pre-match scene was coloured by the huge police presence outside the stadium together with surveillance in the skies and was driven by the anger of the United support – around 500 of whom lit flares and sang songs on the main forecourt. A 10-foot barrier offered protection to the Munich tunnel, which had been breached by the protesters before the original fixture.
The United players had arrived in their own cars at lunchtime – the club taking no chances – but the visitors went for a figurative drop of the shoulder. There was a red Liverpool team bus spotted outside a city centre hotel, which was boxed in by cars before it eventually departed but the club’s real transportation was a couple of dark-coloured coaches which slipped in through W3 car park, alongside the Manchester International Freight Terminal just before 7pm, rather than up the usual route of John Gilbert Way. The protesters charged around belatedly.
Liverpool’s decoy worked but their defence wobbled at the outset, with Alisson fortunate to escape when he directed a pass straight to Edinson Cavani, whose finish was tame. United went in front when they carved open their opponents with two simple passes – Marcus Rashford up the inside right channel for the run of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and the full-back’s low cutback for Bruno Fernandes. With little pressure on him from Fabinho, Fernandes went for the trivela and it was hard to say whether it would have curled in off the far post. Nat Phillips’s lunge made sure, the defender inadvertently slicing past Alisson.
But if Liverpool looked uncomfortable against the United press, they were dangerous when they got up into the final third and were able to turn the game around before the interval. Phillips made amends for his mistake with a surge from left to right inside the area after a Mohamed Salah shot had been blocked and, when he worked the ball back into the six-yard box, Jota’s instinctive flick for the equaliser was superb.
Liverpool were value for their half-time lead,which was given to them when Firmino ran off the slumbering Paul Pogba to head in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick.
It was all action, with Liverpool wanting a third-minute penalty when Firmino’s shot went through Eric Bailly’s block and hit the defender’s hand – an award would have been harsh. They then got one on 26 minutes only for VAR to call it back.
Bailly had swiped into a reckless challenge on Phillips after a Rhys Williams shot had hit Scott McTominay, possibly on the hand. Bailly brushed the ball before taking out Phillips and he was saved by that contact. Liverpool could point, as well, to a pair of Jota efforts that worked Dean Henderson before the break.
United’s defensive looseness was stamped all over Firmino’s second goal at the start of the second half. First Fred gave away possession on the edge of the area only for United to resist but, after Luke Shaw was robbed by Jota, the excellent Alexander-Arnold’s angled drive drew a weak parry from Henderson. Firmino gobbled up the rebound.
It was shocking to witness United’s lurch from a position of strength to disarray. They misplaced passes, misjudged the amount of time they had on the ball and repeatedly had their pockets picked as they tried to play out from the back.
They were clinging on when Jota rattled the post when one-on-one with Henderson after a rapier Liverpool counter and the goalkeeper had to save from Alexander-Arnold after Wan-Bissaka had surrendered possession to Salah. And yet back they came when Cavani played in Rashford for a neat finish. Liverpool should have been out of sight. Now they could feel the heat.
Mason Greenwood, on as a substitute, saw a shot cleared off the line by Phillips but the last word belonged to Salah.