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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

History repeats itself as Manchester United succeed in stifling Liverpool at Anfield

Second successive stalemate at Anfield for United with Jose Mourinho's side intent on smothering Jurgen Klopp's charges

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, right, reacts as Marcus Rashford, bottom, and Liverpool's Joel Matip collide at Anfield. Carl Recine / Reuters
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, right, reacts as Marcus Rashford, bottom, and Liverpool's Joel Matip collide at Anfield. Carl Recine / Reuters

A theme of Jose Mourinho’s storied career is the way that history repeats itself. Manchester United remain positioned to extend his impeccable record of winning the title in his second season everywhere after the Portuguese rewound the clock a year. This was his second successive stalemate at Anfield, and only marginally better than last year’s drab draw.

The bare fact is that Mourinho has only beaten Jurgen Klopp once in eight managerial meetings. His priority, however, was not losing and it was something United accomplished with few alarms. They held off fierce rivals. Liverpool remain seven points behind United. They have only one win in eight games. Klopp’s frustration should increase.

But this was a draw with a difference for Liverpool. Their much-criticised defence kept a clean sheet, helped by United’s lack of adventure. Their often profligate attack missed few chances, though they could rue the instant when Emre Can hooked a volley over. It was one of two moments when United were opened up.

The other drew an outstanding save from David de Gea, somehow meeting Joel Matip’s low volley with his left boot and earning the seal of approval from the watching, and tweeting, Peter Schmeichel, United’s greatest goalkeeper praising a worthy heir.

The danger did not pass until Mohamed Salah shot wide from the rebound and the Egyptian proved a welcome exception in a game largely lacking in flair. His capacity to beat a man and sprint into pace meant he often looked the most threatening individual on show.

The surprise was that Salah and Philippe Coutinho were removed with 12 minutes remaining. It felt an acceptance Liverpool were settling for the draw. The Brazilian had been restored to the front three and brought jinking footwork and an elusiveness, though ultimately this was another game that Sadio Mane missed and which Liverpool did not win.

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They had the majority of possession, often in United territory. Indeed, Jordan Henderson had more of it than anyone else. Can and Gini Wijnaldum helped him run the game but the peculiarity of a meeting between two of English football’s superpowers is that both displayed an underdog mentality: Liverpool like tearing into top teams with the relish of a lower-division side in a cup tie. Mourinho is willing to defend.

United were not as negative as they were at Anfield last season but then few teams are. Mourinho ensured they had two, compact banks of four as a defensive structure. They kept a seventh clean sheet in eight league games, a greater feat as the injured Eric Bailly played no part.

The manager showed his savviness. Matteo Darmian, the soundest of his left-backs defensively, came in. Juan Mata was sacrificed in midfield for the selfless Ashley Young. There was an unapologetic pragmatism about United, summed up when Henrikh Mkhitaryan was replaced by the more prosaic Jesse Lingard.

Behind him, the recalled Ander Herrera, made tackle after tackle. This was a reminder why he forged a reputation as a big-game player last season. The Spaniard had been United’s man of the match at Anfield last year. He was equally impressive on his return. His midfield sidekick Nemanja Matic came close with a swerving shot from the edge of box; closer, indeed, than United’s other catalytic addition.

Romelu Lukaku’s recent record against England’s big six now stands at five goals in 36 games. This was his first away match for United when he failed to find the net but, in his defence, a man who had fewer touches than De Gea was isolated.

The Belgian had one major opportunity, drawing a save from Simon Mignolet after linking up with Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial. The most damage he did, however, was when he connected with a grounded Dejan Lovren with a boot. The Croatian exaggerated the impact and referee Martin Atkinson, who was lenient throughout, decided Lukaku’s actions were not deliberate.

Instead, the intent belonged to Mourinho, who came to stifle and smother and succeeded.