Miguel Delaney: Jose Mourinho fights to stop Jurgen Klopp stealing his special mantle
Another loss to German would suggest United manager has been left behind by younger rivals
On Thursday at Liverpool's Melwood base, discussion temporarily turned away from Manchester United and towards the amplified fervour Jose Mourinho's side are about to walk into at Anfield. Or, rather, one curious aspect of that fervour: the Jurgen Klopp masks. The German was asked about the amount of them being worn by fans, and responded with the jocularity that has been such a part of it all.
"I don't like my face too much, so I would not wear a mask with it!"
You could forgive Mourinho being similarly sick of Klopp's face, because tomorrow's instalment of England's greatest club rivalry is also the latest match in a managerial rivalry that has been much more enjoyable for the German. It has also played into a growing perception Klopp is the future and the Portuguese the past. Out of five previous meetings, Klopp has won three, and even Mourinho's one positive result had a sour tinge.
Real Madrid's 2-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the 2012-13 Champions League semi-final still saw the Spanish side eliminated 4-3 on aggregate, effectively ending Mourinho's time at the Bernabeu. Last October's 3-1 defeat to Liverpool did much the same for his time at Chelsea, and the day itself ended with the Portuguese implying he would face sanction if he jumped around the technical area in the way Klopp does.
The Liverpool boss insisted on Thursday that he and Mourinho have a good relationship, but admitted his idiosyncratic antics on the line can occasionally antagonise other managers, saying: "I have to accept that for a long time in my life not everybody is 100 per cent happy with my performance on the sidelines."
That unhappiness may also reflect a certain dismissiveness that exists towards Klopp among a particular school of continental managers, with one based in Europe snidely remarking recently that the German is "more a motivator than a manager". In other words, that it's all a bit of a mask. That feels harsh, and perhaps born of a certain envy, because that motivation clearly helps Klopp to apply distinctive modern tactics.
A lot of Klopp's behaviour may feel like it's for show, but it has a substantial effect. It is all part of the energy around his team, with the post-game bear hugs that have become so popular with fans and players both an extension and cause of that intensity. Klopp's exuberance furthers that emotional connection with his squad that means they will do everything he asks without complaint. It means they fully commit to the triple sessions in pre-season that left many so exhausted they got hotels near the training ground, but have now allowed them to run 815km this season - the greatest distance by any Premier League team so far.
That in turn fuels some of the most relentless football in the Premier League, with the way Liverpool press privately described by one opposition figure as "one of the most dangerous weapons" in the division. It was a weapon Klopp repeatedly and devastatingly wielded against Mourinho in their past clashes, especially in Dortmund's 4-1 win over Real in that 2013 semi-final. The German targeted Pepe to be a specific "pressing victim", and his players then overwhelmed the centre-half. Real just couldn't live with it.
Mourinho's relationship with Pepe broke down around then, and Sergio Ramos publicly criticised the manager's defensive approach in that game. That situation was in stark contrast to the connection Mourinho used to have with his squads, or that Klopp has with his. What happened at Real continues to colour Mourinho's time in England, since it fed into how Chelsea fell apart, and undeniably added to the doubts surrounding United during that September run of three successive defeats.
That spell didn't quite turn into the crisis expected, but then it isn't like Mourinho has created the anticipated buzz around Old Trafford either. The moods around Liverpool and United are quite different right now, as are the moods of their managers. Whereas Klopp is so ebullient, Mourinho seems so morose. It might be harsh, but it's again hard not to link this to performance, and perceptions of the two managers.
Klopp is now seen as special, Mourinho somewhat spent. Whether that is actually true remains to be seen, but there has been one considerable contrast to their play. While Liverpool have run the most, United have run the least - just 736km.
Paul Pogba in action for Manchester United
There's just been something missing so far. It's been stale. United are nowhere near as tight or lively a team as Liverpool. That might obviously be because of the difference in time the managers have spent in their respective roles, but what Mourinho is actually trying to do with United isn't all that clear yet either. When he signed Paul Pogba, there were hints that it was with a clear system in mind, but we haven't seen it, even with Wayne Rooney on the bench.
United have had their moments of course, especially in the wins over Southampton and Leicester City, and there has been some real promise in the way Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have linked up.
There have also been some real concerns in the way they so often resort to just pumping the ball into the box. This is far removed from the sophistication of City, or the energy of Tottenham Hotspur or Liverpool, but may well be necessary to bypass Klopp's pressing tomorrow.
Both managers also stressed this is only one game, with one win between them.
"I know that at this moment everybody has the feeling we are in a good way and they are not in a good way, but there are only three points difference," Klopp said.
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"That's absolutely nothing." It might become something, however, if Liverpool win and make it a six-point difference. More than that, it would also make concrete a lot of these contrasts, that Klopp is on the way up and Mourinho on the way down.
That is also why victory here is more important for the Portuguese than just going level with Liverpool up the table, or the latest one-upmanship in a long rivalry. Aside from re-energising United again, it would banish ideas Mourinho has fallen behind managers like Klopp, and suggest the German's previous good record against him was merely down to circumstance rather than anything more significant.
There's also the caveat that Mourinho's own record against Liverpool is exceptional, because they seem to fire him like no other Premier League club, even Arsenal. The Portuguese has claimed more wins off Liverpool than any other English side, with eight. Chelsea's 2-0 victory at Anfield near the end of the 2013-14 seasons also remains one of the most quintessentially Mourinho matches, given how he utterly revelled in spoiling the hosts' title chances with the most defensive display possible. The fact that came with a depleted Chelsea in the middle of severe fixture congestion, and so much expectation of a seismic Liverpool win, only sweetened it.
"They wanted us to be clowns in the circus," Mourinho memorably stated at the time.
"I celebrate [that way] because you know what happened before that match," Mourinho said on Friday. "We were feeling that match was for Liverpool to be champions. . . because we had no chance and everybody was waiting for something different than what happened."
There are some at Liverpool who believe it was about more than that, and that Mourinho has forever resented their club since they picked Rafa Benitez over him back in 2004, in the same way he seemed to so fully take against Barcelona for rejecting him in 2008. Mourinho denied that he takes extra satisfaction from beating Liverpool due to his personal history, stressing "I love to play against the big opponents - and Liverpool is a big opponent".
Whatever the truth, it could well offer the intensity United need, to properly combat Liverpool's intensity. It could also spoil the party, and those perceptions.
Sunday Indo Sport