Gambler Klopp plays aces to perfection as Red Devils fold meekly
Published 11/03/2016 | 02:30
Never mind the reduced significance of the competition, a fixture between Liverpool and Manchester United would matter if the two clubs met in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
The city of Liverpool had crackled with expectation ahead of kick-off, everyone talking about what lay ahead, wondering what might happen, fizzing with anticipation.
Inside the stadium, the noise in the build-up was a throwback to less choreographed times, the fans' mutual animosity spilling from the stands. The Liverpool fans held up banners of European trophies accumulated, the United fans chanted "Manchester" throughout the communal singing of You'll Never Walk Alone, everyone told the other lot they were a shadow of their former selves. You could sense how regional this was in the accents: there was nothing Basingstoke or Oslo in the chants of disdain smothering Anfield.
The match-day programme had picked up the competitive theme. It depicted the two managers as prizefighters embarking on a heavyweight title fight. Well, that is one way to describe the Europa League.
Indeed, the coaches who between them have picked five teams for fixtures between these sides, were presented as the most significant representatives of their club's traditions.
Never mind Shankly or Busby, Paisley or Ferguson, this was clash between Jurgen Klopp and Louis van Gaal, between the young pretender and the wise old champion.
Mind, you did not need the front of a magazine to tell you that. It was clear from the moment the teams were announced, the difference between in approach between the two men writ large in the formations.
Liverpool's manager demonstrated his gambler's instinct, starting with as attacking side as he could muster: Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana were all in there. It was a brilliant statement of intent.
The obverse of that was Van Gaal's selection: Ander Herrera on the bench, Marouane Fellaini and Morgan Schneiderlin drafted in to hold and pass sideways, to stifle and limit. It is not much of an ambition, but it has brought Van Gaal four victories over Liverpool. And in the United section, that is all that counts.
The United following incidentally - which had sidestepped en masse the club marketing department's instruction that they all wear a United away shirt to create a white wall in the Anfield Road end - included in their number Andy Cole, Denis Irwin and Gary Pallister.
How the visitors would have preferred to see them on the team-sheet.
Instead, they were required to watch Memphis Depay passing directly to red shirts and blasting free-kicks so far wide they barely gave away goal kicks. For more than an hour, what a wretched, uninspired, negative United this was, epitomised by the under-performing young Dutchman. From the moment they went a goal down after he had gifted Liverpool a penalty, the sole tactical impulse seemed to be to hold on to what they had: keep it at just one goal and see what might happen in the home leg.
A side once characterised by the destructive speed of their counter-attack in European competition, played here as if with the hand brake applied, the paucity of their resources made evident when Depay burst from the back on to Fellaini's pass and stood on the ball as he ventured over the halfway line.
As captain for this most charged of encounters, meanwhile, they had Juan Mata, a lovely bloke but as likely to grab hold of a match by its lapels as Roy Keane is to make public admission of a fondness for interior design.
And the gambler quickly began to appreciate how this was panning out.
Dressed in a white tracksuit, Klopp was first spotted bursting into his technical area after 10 minutes furiously to berate Alberto Moreno for giving the ball away. His temper eased as it became clear this was not the toughest mountain his team will need to climb.
He rose to his feet again to applaud an ambitious Jordan Henderson through ball that ran too far for Firmino.
Indeed, were it not for David de Gea, producing a sequence of stupendous saves in the first half, Klopp would have been dancing down the touchline.
His side's failure to capitalise on their overwhelming attacking superiority, however, led to the nerves beginning to sweep around the stadium.
With Daley Blind creating from left-back, United began to see more of the ball. It was not old school Fergie style up-and-at-em, but it sent shivers of alarm round the building.
Klopp was on his feet pointing and yelling. This was not a tie that was over. At least it was not until Firmino made the most of a catalogue of United defensive errors and finally found a way past De Gea.
It was at that point that the penny finally dropped for Klopp's players: that while they may not be the team they once were, neither are this Manchester United.
And what was Van Gaal's response to going 2-0 down?
He brought on a defensive midfielder. (© Daily Telegraph, London)