For Manchester United fans, it is hope that kills them. The hope that Ole Gunnar Solskjær can find the answers, that the tremors of promises of his mandate can turn into a significant impetus, that the romance inherent in his appointment can somehow prevail over the problems and drift on top of the club.
This was a game in which Liverpool’s superiority was so pronounced for most of the first half and the first part of the second wouldn’t have been a surprise if they had been led by five or six. The intensity of their calcium combined with the surgical nature of their incisions were sufficient to catch their breath. It certainly seemed to take United’s and seemed the ultimate reality check for Solskjær and his players.
Hope continued as United somehow emerged from the storm to play some football in front. Anthony Martial has also missed an excellent opportunity for an unlikely equalizer. United fought to the end.
Yet in the end, after United had loaded men in the Liverpool area for an all-or-nothing corner, there was Mohamed Salah running at Alisson’s distance, holding onto Daniel James and finally giving Liverpool the breathing space they had desired. Alisson ran along the field to celebrate with a knee slide in front of Salah.
The Kop screamed that they had won the Premier League, of how people would now believe in them and it was difficult to understand who could not. Liverpool’s invincible streak continues – they are unbeaten in 39 league games, the fourth-best run in the history of the English top flight, and are 16 points behind Manchester City in second place with one game in hand. This was their seventh straight clean sheet in the competition. A first title in 30 years is far from them.
For United, it was another example of the inadequacy of their best efforts. With Chelsea losing to Newcastle on Saturday, they saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between the top four. They have failed. Yes, they avoided hammering and regained some pride, but they cannot be unaware of the larger picture, one that shows the abyss that has developed between them and their fiercest rivals.
Solskjær had reassured himself that United was the only team to take anything from Liverpool in the league this season and started with the 3-4-1-2 system he had successfully used in the 1-1 draw against L ‘Old Trafford last October. United solved the problem more quickly, but Jürgen Klopp’s team was not easily defeated. They tended to find the answers, the means to take control and they did it in 14 minutes after a corner that seriously compromised Solskjær’s plans.
It is always negligible to give from a set kick and even more when it involves a failure in the marking. Why was Brandon Williams, who is 5 feet 6 inches apart, tasked with tracking down Virgil van Dijk, one of the most dominant air forces in the game? With Harry Maguire blocked by Joe Gomez, Van Dijk went up to the house for the delivery of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
It was as if a switch had been activated. Liverpool increased, energy crackled. They shook United, choked them, and went to the field in their half for most of the rest of the first half. Everything United could do to enjoy peace on the ball. Liverpool were too fast, too tough and, but for a VAR overrule, it would have gone up 2-0 in the 24th minute.
Van Dijk approached David de Gea and there were contacts, so that United stopped temporarily, expecting the whistle. Sadio Mané did not come, he recaptured Victor Lindelöf’s ball and Roberto Firmino curled up in the far corner. Cue United fury and, after the review, an acknowledgment that Van Dijk had committed a foul on De Gea. It was a tight call.
A few moments earlier, Luke Shaw had denied Mané a saving challenge after Firmino’s cross had broken Fred and Liverpool, the smell of blood in their nostrils, had poured forward for others. Firmino failed to finish by Salah’s cross and Liverpool ruled out another goal, this time for offside, after Gini Wijnaldum was deemed to have been slightly ahead of the last man before returning home from Alex’s pass Oxlade-Chamberlain.
De Gea would be forced to block one-on-one with his legs to keep Mané out and the only real moment of note of the first half came when Aaron Wan-Bissaka, stealing in space, pushed Martial’s crossbar over the goal. Andreas Pereira could not stretch to apply a decisive touch to the far post.
Liverpool’s restlessness was a feature of their fabulous run and they brought United’s foot back in the throat at the restart of the second half. Salah somehow dismissed his lines from close range after Andy Robertson’s cross and Shaw’s miscalculation, while Jordan Henderson slammed a shot against the outside of the post.
How was it only 1-0? It seemed like a deception of the mind and yet, while the margin remained slim, United kept hope. They said they could only take one chance. And, after Fred shot deep, they created the one with the golden edges, the martial exchange passes with Pereira to place the shot inside the box. He cut high.
Mané pushed his way to the other end and, with United feeling a recovery, Martial and Fred shot on goal. Liverpool, however, would not have given up on what they had.