Danny Gallagher was at Old Trafford to witness a 1-1 draw that, over 90 minutes, showed the increasing gulf between Liverpool and Man United as rivals.
Man United vs. Liverpool matches guarantee noise. They are turbulent, erratic and unpredictable in nature. Little can be promised, yet noise and atmosphere remain the one constant on offer. Always.
And so it emerged, Old Trafford humming and frothing way before kickoff. Swirls of different chorus echoing across four corners, fans using that extra bit of pent-up energy after being denied their domestic fix by the international break.
It’s strange how the tables turn, and the tides shift. This isn’t the same fixture anymore. Or rather, it is, but the emotions have been exchanged.
Liverpool always went to Old Trafford in hope of causing an upset, to take bragging rights back down the East Lancs road and scalp a sacred three points from the bitter enemy.
It was always, realistically, to damage United’s title challenge rather than incubate one of their own.
And now the change couldn’t be more apparent. The home faithful made the most of the visitors filtering slowly into the east pocket of the ground due to strenuous security checks, and took every opportunity to set the scene with high decibels. Chants from yesteryear, rolled out especially for the occasion.
Hearty renditions of Diego ‘making the scousers cry’ greeted the players as they took to the warmups. The song lyrics, of course, regarding United’s 2-1 Anfield victory in 2002, courtesy of a Forlan double.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer himself was playing in that game. And to think, it’s supposedly Liverpool fans who live in the past.
Now it’s United fans wanting a pound of Liverpool flesh. They are acutely aware of how close Jurgen Klopp’s European champions are to ending a painful domestic wait. Everybody is.
And so the tone was set. A throaty Stretford End created noise. Just pure noise, chanting, cheering and clapping with little coherence. This wasn’t an orchestra pouring confident volume down as it did so frequently during the Alex Ferguson era, but a nervy ensemble of hype-men desperate to will their team into something. Anything.
United fans, rightly, braced themselves to discover which of their sides would turn up to host the league leaders. Or whether one would at all. They did their bit, and so did United, for a while.
The hosts’ flurry of a start fuelled the adrenaline and worked well to replenish the fans in a two-way cycle. But there’s only so long you can play off noise and noise alone. VAR madness aside, Marcus Rashford’s opener was met with raucous disbelief.
Though Divock Origi was clearly fouled, the swift interchange of play didn’t befit a team closer to the relegation zone than the top. Such sights are scarce these days on the Mancunian way and it welcomes hysteria, so low have the expectation levels dropped.
It spurred United, no doubt about it. Current form in these types of heated games goes completely out of the window, but there preceded to be an element of the obvious in that this side were still the very same XI who can’t shoot fish in a barrel away from home, recently lost to a forlorn Newcastle, and are generally feared by very few.
Liverpool however had started slow, there’s no two ways about it. Whether the Reds still had the lactic of international football in their legs, or whether the nerves of closing out the weekend came into play, remains to be seen.
Slow, though, does not equate to ‘bad’. Jurgen Klopp’s men were economic with their possession, clicked into transitions efficiently enough and generally frustrated three sides of the ground by crowding out danger with neat triangles.
If Sadio Mane’s goal on the cusp of half-time was the sucker punch United did not order, the overruling call of the video assistants was the shot straight into the bloodstream they craved.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remained firmly in his seat, opting to send Mike Phelan down to the touchline to engage in the customary protestations on United’s side, as Klopp gesticulated his own.
Solskjaer had made a big point of getting Fergie all around the place at United’s Carrington base during the week’s buildup, and perhaps he was trying to emulate his mentor’s once emperor-like aura of commanding from the comfort of a heated leather seat.
He needn’t have bothered. The Norwegian isn’t overseeing a side anywhere near as good as those of Ferguson’s, and it was soon about to show.
But for a brief lively start to the second period, United’s number was about to be revealed. Still, the noise bounded around, home fans going out of their way to drown out the vastly outnumbered away section with, quite frankly, anything.
The pressure and perhaps shock of holding the lead in a pivotal game began to permeate, through the players and into the stands.
Still buoyed with the thrill of antagonising the travelling Liverpudlians over Mane’s no-goal, a rendition of ‘sign on, sign on…for you’ll never get a job’ was articulated loudly, and proudly.
This, despite Manchester sharing the pains of Merseyside in having worrying levels of unemployment, and large numbers of foodbank users. Supporters groups from both clubs joined in unison prior to the fixture to make a joint collection effort to help those less fortunate, yet the classic twist on ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ poured out.
In the situation the north-west now finds itself in due to the current political mire that is the UK, it seems some things either cannot be risen above, or just simply understood.
Back on the pitch, however, Klopp’s shuffling of the pack afforded Liverpool something United—the world’s richest club—now somehow no longer boast…tactical flexibility.
A player who has the beating of the man in the wider areas, but is robust enough for a central zone. All ideas have a careful hatching point with Liverpool these days.
Sure, the Reds could have given themselves an easier run of things. A glorious squared chance for Roberto Firmino was spurned in the first half, Trent Alexander-Arnold lashed over and the lively introduction of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have seen a long-range effort at least on target.
But that’s football, and that’s the difficulty of returning from the international break into such a crunch fixture.
United, though, out of options but unfortunately for themselves, not out of time, had started to brace. Moments earlier, the travelling Kop had reminded the famous old ground of their team’s summer exploits in Madrid. Tension cranked. The only certain victories in Manchester these days belong roughly 4.4 miles away at the Etihad.
And then the silence came.
A match, a far cry from some of the boiled and bloodied United-Liverpool battles of the past, had nonetheless remained defined by constant noise. But that was gone.
A collective sucking of breath, as a barrage of Liverpool passing saw Andy Robertson’s deep-searching cross fizzed in from the left. Past one, past two, past three, the insecurities and blame-shifting tendencies of United’s questionable back line laid bare in one swift move.
Noise gone, silence deafening. The ball falls to the feet of Liverpool’s forgotten man, largely ridiculed online following his introduction, and the unbeaten run was back intact.
Liverpool left Manchester with hardly a mark against their name. Two dropped points, of course, but a notoriously difficult fixture navigated. Title challenge firmly on course.
For United, back to uncertainty. So apparent was the pain of having glory snatched away so late on. Those morale-soaring derby wins can rose-tint horrendous seasons, offering a shred of comfort where there is nothing else. Liverpool fans, of course, know this feeling oh so well.
But the silence came. And all is quiet in Manchester now.