Zlatan Ibrahimovic strikes late for Manchester United in draw with Liverpool
There was a banner fluttering at one end of the ground – “26 Years and Counting” – to remind Liverpool about how long it had been since they could call themselves league champions. There used to be a similar one here in honour of Manchester City but it went a few years ago and, for a while, this had looked like being another day when the team from Anfield could also imagine removing those kind of indignities.
Their frustration at not being able to hold on to their half-time lead could be gauged by the exchange late on when Jürgen Klopp, looking close to the point of spontaneous combustion, argued with José Mourinho by the pitch and did not seem too enthusiastic about the prospect of making friends.
All the great championship-winning sides from Anfield knew how to hang on to 1-0 leads, and if the modern version had managed it here they would have been the first Liverpool team in the Premier League era to take 47 points from 21 games. To surrender that chance with only six minutes of normal time to go must have stung.
Instead the opportunity to move directly behind Chelsea at the top of the table was lost – courtesy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 19th goal of the season – on another of those days when Marouane Fellaini was summoned from the Manchester United substitutes’ bench in the hope that a gangly six-footer with sharp elbows and a peculiar relationship with the club’s supporters might be able to save them.
Fellaini flicked a header against the post to create the panic from which Ibrahimovic scored, and Mourinho talked afterwards about having a “problem in my neck” because he had spent so long in the second half looking in one direction – namely the way United were attacking.
To be fair, that was the summit of Mourinho’s exaggeration and he also made it clear he was dissatisfied with his team’s general carelessness.
It was a strangely erratic display from the home team and Paul Pogba chose a bad day to have one of his least distinguished performances, most notable for the first-half incident when he tried to clear a corner from his own penalty area in the manner of a basketball player going for a slam-dunk. A simple header would have sufficed and when James Milner converted the penalty Liverpool defended with great togetherness while frequently looking dangerous on the break.
Klopp felt Liverpool had been the better side for 70 minutes “until they came with the long ball”, noting the way Fellaini’s introduction changed the complexion of the game and blowing out his cheeks about “all the balls bouncing around the 18-yard box”.
His mood was not helped when he was informed that Antonio Valencia was offside in the buildup before the decisive cross for Ibrahimovic. Though the Liverpool manager did not say as much, he might also reflect that his side can make better use of the ball, too. Mourinho felt both sides were conspicuously below their best – even if the two teams did give absolutely everything.
Pogba was the case in point bearing in mind his collection of individual errors was not merely restricted to the moment he lost his bearings inside the penalty area, realised he might have lost his opponent, Dejan Lovren, and threw out his arms to try to rectify the situation.
That was not the only time Pogba seemed disorientated at Liverpool’s set pieces and he will not feel any better that, with the game goalless, he wasted his team’s first clear opportunity, running on to Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s through ball before aiming a hesitant left-foot shot wide.
Pogba might also have cost United another goal in the second half, losing the ball and spared only because Georginio Wijanldum headed over a right-wing cross from Emre Can, the game’s outstanding performer. These are not the moments expected of a player signed for a world-record fee but, if nothing else, Pogba kept going. The same applied to United as a whole – they could have passed the ball with much greater authority but nobody could ever doubt their commitment.
Liverpool had Trent Alexander-Arnold, an 18-year-old, starting his first Premier League fixture in place of the injured Nathaniel Clyne, and it cannot have been an easy adjustment when for long spells the game seemed to be played at ice-hockey speed.
It was breathless stuff and perhaps it was just inevitable that a game played with this kind of intensity would have error-strewn periods. However much Pogba is criticised, it will not have escaped Mourinho’s attention that Phil Jones was dispossessed by Roberto Firmino to give away the corner that led to the penalty.
Ibrahimovic tested Simon Mignolet with a cannonball of a free-kick before half-time and Liverpool’s goalkeeper also denied Mkhitaryan after Ander Herrera had given the Armenian a chance to equalise.
There was no doubting United’s endeavour but they lacked finesse and Klopp could think back to Wijnaldum’s header and another chance, at 1-0, for Firmino as he reflected on a draw that means Liverpool have not won any of their opening four matches in a calendar year for the first time since 1993.
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