Man United v Liverpool: Pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to keep old rivals at bay
With Liverpool close to best title bid this century, Norwegian will be forgiven some caginess if it means putting brakes on their dreams
Liverpool could miss out on the Premier League title simply for losing only on their two visits to Manchester's clubs this season.
That at least will be the scenario Jurgen Klopp’s team are confronted with, boldly and noisily, should they leave Old Trafford on Sunday with no points, still second in the table on goal difference, and their game in hand used up.
It is a chilling prospect for Klopp, and a very present danger, so rapid has been the transformation of Manchester United since Liverpool defeated them 3-1 at Anfield only a little more than two months ago, bringing to an end Jose Mourinho’s unhappy stint in charge of United.
Mourinho had conspicuously failed at several requirements of a United manager, one of which is the legacy all of them have to handle: The responsibility for keeping Liverpool “knocked off their perch”.
The phrase is Alex Ferguson’s copyright, a description of how the modern rivalry of the clubs is shaped by United becoming as dominant domestically in the 1990s and 2000s as Liverpool had been in the 1970s and 1980s.
A first Klopp-inspired win at the home of the old enemy – he has been there twice as Liverpool manager, drawn twice, and lost at Old Trafford last season – would perch Liverpool at the top of the table, three points clear with 11 games to go.
It would feel momentous for that, and a significant landmark for the manager.
But then almost every United-Liverpool has a landmark quality: Mourinho was dismissed immediately after the last one; when David Moyes – Ferguson’s successor – oversaw a 3-0 defeat in his first Old Trafford confrontation with Liverpool, in March 2014, plans were made by a group of United followers to hire an aircraft, attach a ‘Moyes Out’ message to it, and fly over the stadium at the next opportunity.
Moyes was dismissed the following month.
Sunday’s collision has a landmark quality, too, for Mourinho’s successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – a caretaker par excellence so far, blessed with the finest run of form in 2019 of any Premier League manager and now blessed by Klopp’s pre-match remarks on Solskjaer’s future.
“There is no doubt he will be the manager next year,” the German said.
If that was designed to instill complacency, make Solskjaer think he is now manager-elect, it will not work. “Every single game is a test,” the caretaker said, carefully.
He also knows, better than most, that fortunes turn on these Lancashire superderbies.
Go back 20 seasons on the timeline of Liverpool’s being knocked from their perch and there is a famous Solskjaer moment. In the mind’s eye of thousands of United supporters, the recall of the goal Solskjaer, then a United striker, scored at home against Liverpool, to claim a victory in injury time in an FA Cup tie that Liverpool had led for 83 minutes, is crystal clear.
The striker, then 25, had come off the bench – his specialism – to apply his cool, clinical judgements in the penalty box when temperatures all around him were rising.
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That was in the season United went on to win a treble; supersub Solskjaer’s goal also won the European Cup, coming off the bench, in stoppage time. And United would look back on his late match-winner against Liverpool as a turning point, the day belief in the impossible became standard.
If the balance of this fixture has altered since December, and the bleak last hours of Mourinho’s tenancy, it has also shifted in the last two weeks. Both managers have learned lessons about containment, collected study-aids on how to thwart one another.
Solskjaer’s only defeat in his 13 games in caretaker charge, the 2-0 Old Trafford loss in the Uefa Champions League first leg against Paris Saint-Germain, provided a useful template for Klopp on how to stymie Paul Pogba, and blunt a team averaging 2.5 goals per game across the rest of Solskjaer’s sparky reign.
Likewise, Solskjaer and his staff watched with curious interest how Bayern Munich, with a deep midfield three, and retreated full-backs, kept Liverpool, last season’s most prolific scorers in the Champions League, goalless at Anfield last Tuesday.
Solskjaer took note. He knows Old Trafford disapproves of an excessively defensive posture in its home team.
But he will also suspect that, with Liverpool tantalisingly close to their best title bid this century, he would be forgiven some caginess if it put the brakes on their dreams.
Updated: February 24, 2019 08:31 AM