As a heavyweight contest, Sunday’s game between Liverpool and Manchester United felt like watching Muhammad Ali go toe-to-toe with George Foreman in a pub car park, with the purse being one of the latter’s grills—and the loser winning a Europa League place.
If this were a rumble in the jungle, Ant and Dec would have been hosting it and Louis van Gaal chewing on kangaroo anus.
Blows were traded in the knowledge that one hefty straightener timed just right would lay the other on the canvas. For all of the talk of bygone battles and grand ambitions, this had the feel of titans going through the motions having sold advertising space on the soles of their boots. United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward would approve of that.
And so it played out that one sucker punch indeed proved enough. In the second half, when Wayne Rooney half-volleyed past Simon Mignolet with Manchester United’s sole shot on target after Marouane Fellaini’s uncontested header had crashed into his path via the crossbar, referee Mark Clattenburg barely bothered with a 10-count.
Liverpool could have had Chelsea’s added minutes from their game against Everton the previous day in dog years and probably still not beaten David De Gea.
Rooney’s goal was the seventh Liverpool have conceded from corner kicks this season, more than any other Premier League club. Traditionally, it is a glass of wine managers offer their counterparts—Liverpool this term have handed out complimentary goals from set pieces.
"In football everything is about timing and the right thing in the right moment," Jurgen Klopp told Liverpool’s official website in the game’s buildup.
Klopp’s prescience proved pertinent for Rooney.
It wasn’t vintage Rooney, not by a long stretch, but a technically difficult finish that proved the difference between the two sides should quell, momentarily at least, a significant number in possession of both a typewriter and conviction United’s No. 10 has become a parody of himself. He is not what he was, but nor is he what many claim he has become. It’s hard to argue with five goals in his past four matches.
Andy Warhol once said: "Don't pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches."
If Rooney lived by that principle, he’d take to the field sitting on a throne and wearing a crown. After the quintessential smash-and-grab job at Anfield, he might have to make do with a satin bomber jacket as sported by Ryan Gosling’s getaway driver in Drive. Though one suspects, unlike Warhol, he’s as prone to self-doubt as the rest of us.
Rooney’s winner saw him surpass Thierry Henry's tally for Arsenal to become the player with the most Premier League goals for a single club, on 176 and counting.
In the first half, United were turgid. With Liverpool sprightly in comparison—Roberto Firmino fluttered effervescently, like a butterfly trapped in a train carriage with a herd of rhino—United looked to have reverted back to type after the straitjacket had been loosened at Newcastle United in midweek.
They were so bad it was hard to work out whether a lack of attacking thrust and ambition was through design or necessity. For the sixth time this season, they completed 45 minutes without a single shot on target.
With Liverpool effectively playing with three false nines—which, in plain English, translates as no good striker—at various intervals, Firmino, James Milner and Adam Lallana all found themselves the furthest forward for the home side. When coupled with the fact United employed Rooney as a solitary centre-forward, the midfield area was congested to the point Clattenburg inquired at half-time about the possibility of erecting a makeshift tollbooth.
It would have been easier to play chess with a toddler on your knee than dictate proceedings via the dreaded means of sterile possession. Instead, United lumped it to Rooney, eschewing possession-based football in favour of the panicky variety.
At the same time as being nullified as an attacking force, they looked susceptible to balls being played behind their own back four. Lallana’s header, when he got to the ball before De Gea from Lucas’ Steven Gerrard-like lofted first time pass, was as indifferent as everything else he’s done in a Liverpool shirt. Firmino fired the rebound narrowly wide.
Lallana is a pretty enough footballer, but when he's forced to make a decision, he has all the conviction of a gap-year student in Goa choosing whether to ride an elephant or a camel. If Klopp told him his new position was manager of a cereal bar outside Anfield, he’d probably just shrug and get on with it.
A cushioned Firmino pass to Milner later in the first half drew audible gasps of delight, which were drowned out seconds later by groans that could be heard on the other side of Stanley Park when the England man met the ball on the half-volley. The old fella with the telescope on the John Lewis Christmas advert has yet to throw it back down to Earth.
Lucas and Fellaini indulged in a couple of half-hearted tete-a-tetes, but the wet paper bag is still fully usable. What was a grimy and industrial contest never threatened to spill over—on the field that is, as off it, in the Sky Sports studio, it was an altogether feistier affair. Let’s just say Peter Schmeichel may be a big man, but in the words of Michael Caine, he’s out of shape. This column would rather strap steak to its chest in a safari park than ruck with Graeme Souness.
What passed in a rhythmically challenged opening period was largely dull and only periodically punctuated by Liverpool’s almost perverse predilection for shooting from range. Keep this up and motorcycle helmets will be mandatory on the Kop. As a striker of a football from distance, Jordan Henderson is a good runner.
After the interval, United were improved, noticeably if not significantly enough to be remotely impressive, yet it was Liverpool that conjured the better of the chances. The buccaneering Emre Can twice brought excellent saves from De Gea. First, the Spaniard thwarted the German with a slightly fortuitous stop via a heel as the ball threatened to sneak through his legs on the angle.
Then, with what his manager presumably thought was one for the cameras, such was his apathetic assessment of his goalkeeper post-match, De Gea palmed away Can’s strapping drive from range before reacting smartly to Firmino’s snaffling up of the rebound.
"I don't think David De Gea has done very much, two or three balls he has to stop, a goalkeeper has to do that," said Van Gaal, per Reuters.
"He is playing very good but you can not say he was a fantastic, marvellous goalkeeper today."
That’s one way to stop him having his head turned by Real Madrid, Louis.
By the time Rooney had notched only his second goal at Anfield and first since 2005 in the 79th minute, United had only previously threatened when the industrious Anthony Martial pulled a shot wide after some rare bright approach play from the away side.
Van Gaal could claim his players sat on the ropes to tempt Liverpool into punching themselves out, just as Ali did to Foreman back in 1974. The Dutchman was certainly as bullish (many would argue fallacious) as Ali was in Zaire, when he intimated post-match that a victory that takes his side to within four points of Tottenham Hotspur reignites not just aspirations of a top-four finish but also a serious title tilt.
"To beat Liverpool is always important," Van Gaal said, per the Guardian. "It was important because our competitors have lost points. We are seven points behind [the league leaders] now.
"We have a lot of matches still to go. We started 2016 very good with a lot of wins—this game will give a big boost to the players and the fans and the environment of Manchester United."
Before the game, Klopp compared derby games to being salt in soup. On this showing, it’s hard not to take Van Gaal’s words with a vat of the stuff. Yet in a season in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s "Football, bloody hell" could be used as an overarching slogan to sum it all up, United fans will dare to dream.
Perhaps only when intoxicated, but there will be idle moments.
For a man who loves his sides to be economical, Van Gaal will relish the fact United have managed to take six points off Liverpool this season by scoring with each of their four shots on target.
Liverpool, in contrast, have the second-worst shot-conversion rate in the Premier League behind Aston Villa. That's nothing new centre-half loan signing Steven Caulker shouldn’t be able to fix in the next few weeks if he continues to be thrown up front by football’s great innovator.
Klopp wasn't looking for excuses post-match, as he relayed the simplest of messages, via the Telegraph: "It's a derby and in a derby you have one job to do—that's to win."
Only people best avoided at parties bemoan a league in which reigning champions Chelsea are 14th and Leicester City are joint-top. Yet at the same time, there is little rationale to counter any claim that says there is a vacuum of great sides in England’s top flight. To argue either Liverpool or United are even good sides, let alone great, would be charitable to the point a licence and collection box would be required to even make the suggestion.
Those not predisposed to the history of Liverpool vs. Manchester United would perhaps shrug and say Sunday’s game was what it was: ninth against sixth (United moved up to fifth with the win). They’d be doing both teams a favour; in truth, it was much worse than that.
Even for the neutral, to witness more misplaced passes than teenagers groping in the dark makes gloomy winter days seem even longer.
As a contest, it was like one of those episodes of The Apprentice when the winning team is scolded for celebrating too vigorously a victory built on the back of selling three more overripe avocados to unsuspecting London tourists than their boardroom rivals.
I half expected the Anfield heavens to part at full-time to make space for Alan Sugar’s head shaped out of cumulonimbus clouds. "I don’t know what you lot are laughing about; you’re just as bloody rubbish as the other lot," he’d sneer, training his sights on Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Marcos Rojo doing the Macarena in the away end.
As a special treat laid on by Sir Alan, the winning team would be allowed to watch a rerun of the game in its entirety. Cue the world’s first steward’s inquiry requested by the victors.
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