Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 May 2020

Liverpool outclass Manchester United to make Premier League title seem inevitable

Van Dijk's first-half header and Salah's injury time finish ensured another victory for Klopp's rampant side

Alisson set off 100 yards in celebration. Liverpool’s goalkeeper had registered a rare assist, Mohamed Salah had belatedly recorded his first goal against Manchester United and victory was secured.

A punt from the back, a sprint in attack and Liverpool had secured a 21st win in 22 league games. It should have been a thrashing their fans would have relished, but 30 points clear of United and 16 ahead of anyone, they hardly need to worry about goal difference. It is a question of when, not if, now.

Liverpool have dominated a division this season. They enjoyed a level of superiority over United to indicate how the mighty have fallen and a gulf has grown, even if it was not reflected in the scoreline. Virgil van Dijk’s emphatic header and Salah's late clincher sufficed. United had gone unbeaten in the league against the top eight and had only lost one of their previous 11 meetings with Liverpool. Neither is true any more.

Instead, Liverpool retain their 100 per cent home record. United’s chances of Champions League football deteriorated, though more through the news Marcus Rashford has a stress fracture of the back than a result most forecast.

They should not convince themselves this was close. Liverpool were too strong and too sharp. It was fitting the first goal came from the outstanding player on the pitch.

The two-year anniversary of Van Dijk’s arrival fell earlier this month. There have been few more transformative transfers and a commanding presence in his own box materialised in United’s penalty area to forge the opener. Van Dijk rose above Harry Maguire, who took his title as the most expensive defender in history, to head in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner.

It was further evidence of United’s set-piece frailties – no team has conceded more goals from corners – and Alexander-Arnold’s expert delivery. It could have produced an earlier breakthrough, with Sadio Mane glancing a header wide from the right-back’s free kick.

Jurgen Klopp had suggested Ole Gunnar Solskjaer adopted negative tactics against Liverpool. The United manager did nothing to disprove that by selecting two specialist left-backs, with Luke Shaw used as a central defender in a back five. If that negative gameplan seemed redundant when United conceded after 14 minutes, Solskjaer persisted with it for a further hour before eventually making attacking changes.

The one-goal deficit lasted as long more by luck than judgement. Liverpool had two goals disallowed, the first via VAR. Roberto Firmino celebrated what seemed his belated first Anfield strike of the season after a brilliant curler.

But Van Dijk was adjudged to have fouled David de Gea when the goalkeeper spilled the ball. Gini Wijnaldum’s effort was chalked off sooner, with the Dutchman fractionally offside when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a slide-rule pass.

The near-misses stacked up, each a sign of United’s inability to halt Liverpool from cutting through them. It amounted to a failure of their midfield, who were utterly incapable of protecting an overworked defence.

Solskjaer may be unfortunate to be deprived of the services of Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay but, while Fred had his moments, the one-paced Nemanja Matic was utterly overrun. Lacking Rashford, there are few potential scorers. United have rarely looked as threadbare, whereas Liverpool welcomed Fabinho back for a late cameo.

And the start of the second half, in particular, was a bombardment. De Gea had already denied an unmarked Mane with a terrific save. Then Salah scuffed a shot from Andrew Robertson’s cross. Jordan Henderson lashed a shot against the post, with De Gea applying a crucial touch to prevent it from going in. Mane squeezed a shot across the face of goal and wide.

Belatedly, Salah did add the second. Before then, when United did get a fine chance, Anthony Martial shot wildly over the bar. Yet United’s attacking efforts were summed up when Andreas Pereira lost possession by running into Daniel James. Sometimes opponents are not required to halt United.

Updated: January 19, 2020 10:38 PM

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