The Merseysiders have displayed the kind of authoritative football their great rivals considered a forte for years, but are now struggling to produce.
The last time Manchester United walked out at Anfield under the floodlights, they were noticeably overawed. Arms interlinked ahead of kick off, the visitors twisted their heads towards the Kop – a kaleidoscope of colour and deafening cries – with a mixture of fear, wonderment and envy.
When Liverpool’s on-pitch performance matched the thunder from the terraces, it only extended United’s list of reasons to begrudge their fiercest rivals. They could not compete in the aura stakes, and were certainly no match in the contest itself.
Louis van Gaal admitted his side “couldn’t cope” with the “fantastic atmosphere” nor the constant pressure from the Reds in that 2-0 Europa League last-16 defeat, and while his successor Jose Mourinho would never allow such words to roll off his tongue, he’ll arrive on Merseyside knowing the challenge has only been elevated.
Liverpool’s progress has been rapid and riveting under Klopp; the manager’s blueprint tattooed on the squad and their performances. An off-afternoon against Burnley aside, they have been unconquerable this season while serving up an equal dose of diligence and devastation. While there is conviction and clarity coursing through Liverpool, United are clouded by uncertainty.
Mourinho has the Wayne Rooney conundrum to contend with, and it is still difficult to decipher their design. The Portuguese said he would not hide behind “philosophies” at his unveiling in July, but it cannot be blanketed that United have yet to show concrete signs of a system to produce the aggressive and dynamic approach he has promised.
Klopp has, however, highlighted the quality his counterpart has to work with and insisted there is little to separate the teams. The German is aware that in these “salt in the soup” fixtures, being the better side doesn’t automatically equal victory. His first encounter against United as Liverpool boss ended in a 1-0 defeat despite his charges commanding the game against their adversaries. ” We lost a game that we should not have lost,” was Klopp’s assessment of that January showdown, in which David de Gea was man of the match, with Rooney converting the late winner.
Mourinho insists a repeat of such a smash-and-grab is “not going to happen again” and was also quick to note that the numbers registered thus far by both sides are inconsequential to Monday night’s meeting.
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