The match programme’s spaghetti western-style front cover set the tone: This was a face-off between two managers with big reputations.
Yet while Jurgen Klopp had talked up Liverpool versus Manchester United as “the mother of all games”, his Manchester United counterpart Louis van Gaal has suggested that winning at Anfield would give him no more pleasure than beating West Bromwich Albion. If this was an attempt at mind games, it did not work.
Van Gaal had won all four of his meetings with Liverpool since taking charge at United, but that run was brought to an end last night. At Borussia Dortmund, Klopp had an excellent record against Van Gaal’s Bayern Munich, and a deserved first-leg victory was secured last night.
When Klopp replaced Brendan Rodgers as Liverpool manager in October, he spoke of a need for his players to be calmer in front of goal.
Too often, he felt, his players were snatching at opportunities, particularly at home, leading to apprehension in the Anfield stands that frayed nerves on the pitch even further.
Five months on, the evidence that Liverpool are playing with a greater confidence in attack is there for all to see — but they were repeated thwarted by a goalkeeper in inspired form.
David De Gea made four superb saves as Klopp’s team threatened to overwhelm United. And while Philippe Coutinho rather let the visitors off the hook with a weak first-half finish, there was little reason to find fault with Liverpool’s attack otherwise. It was just that De Gea was brilliant.
United would have been delighted, in the circumstances, to return to Old Trafford with only a 1-0 deficit, but Roberto Firmino’s coolly-taken second gave Klopp’s team an advantage more in keeping with their performance.
There were eyebrows raised as Marouane Fellaini was named in Manchester United’s starting line-up, his first appearance in a month after returning from a hamstring injury.
The Belgium midfielder’s performance could be filed in the ‘bull in a china shop’ category. He was fortunate to last an hour without being booked, particularly after one off the ball stamp on Dejan Lovren’s heel following a foul by the Liverpool defender.
Fellaini and fellow midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin were overwhelmed during a first half Liverpool dominated, with United failing to muster a single shot on target. When Carrick appeared at the start of the second half, it was as a third centre-back. The visitors showed little sign of improvement, begging the question as to why Van Gaal had thrown Fellaini straight back into such a crucial game.
Madrid’s Carlos Velasco Carballo has faced controversy in high-pressure situations before; he was the referee who had to deal with a fractious World Cup quarter-final between Brazil and Colombia in Fortaleza two years ago.
Velasco Carballo, the first overseas referee to take charge of a competitive fixture between Liverpool and Manchester United, arrived at Anfield with a reputation for discipline, having handed out six red cards and 74 yellows in his previous 12 matches.
He struck early by booking Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson inside 100 seconds for a studs-up challenge on Morgan Schneiderlin, and the yellow cards mounted up steadily after that, with four by half-time. He did, though, get the penalty decision correct.
The generous verdict on Memphis Depay’s first season at Manchester United is that it has been mixed; he has been poor in domestic games, but has fared much better in European ties.
He was a significant factor in United’s victory over Midtjylland in the last round, but struggled against a club who tried to sign him last summer.
The concern for Van Gaal is that Memphis has developed a habit of making costly mistakes. It was a poor back header at Stoke on Boxing Day that allowed Bojan Krkic to score as United fell to defeat; while a loose pass late in the game at Chelsea in early February led to Diego Costa scoring an equaliser in a 1-1 draw.
Memphis fell down at Anfield when tracking back; he grabbed Nathaniel Clyne’s shirt outside the penalty area, continued the foul towards the edge of the penalty area and then clipped his opponent right on the line to concede a soft and unnecessary penalty.