A football match finally broke out at a Manchester United supporters’ demonstration but, thanks to two goals from Roberto Firmino and a dominant Liverpool win, this was one for Jurgen Klopp to savour, not his opposite number or the home fans.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, whose strong end to the season has been overshadowed by on-going protests against the owners the Glazer family, had Bruno Fernandes put them in front early in an entertaining tussle that finally took place 11 days after its initial postponement.
But Diogo Jota started a spell of three Liverpool goals in 13 minutes, either side of half-time, for a priceless victory that keeps alive Klopp’s hopes of landing a top-four finish.
The heightened security measures surrounding the game, and its build-up, added a surreal atmosphere to a fixture that is one of the most emotionally-charged in the English calendar, even in normal circumstances.
Supporters started gathering slowly around 5pm at a heavily-fortified Old Trafford, peacefully at first, then increasingly boisterously with over two thousand eventually meeting, letting off smoke flares and continuing their protests against their club’s owners.
Meanwhile, in the city centre, a game of cat and mouse ensued between United fans, who were hellbent on preventing the Liverpool team bus from leaving the hotel, and security and police.
Two Liverpool buses, parked in nearly side streets, were targeted and briefly blocked in before a heavy police presence, including riot police in full gear, blocked off the city centre road to allow players to board two of the coaches and make the journey of a little over two miles to the ground.
The scenes at Old Trafford were again impassioned although, unlike the first meeting that led to the postponement, appeared to pass off without any violence or injury. Greater Manchester Police confirmed two arrests were made, relating to public order offences, before the protestors finally dispersed 15 minutes or so before kick-off.
It was easy to forget that a football match was also meant to be taking place although, to the credit of the two sets of players, there was no shortage of endeavour or entertainment served up.
United’s players had arrived at the stadium around 1pm, over seven hours before kick-off, to beat the protests and spent the day in executive boxes which had been converted into “hotel rooms,” complete with beds.
Maybe the comfortable preparations helped explain an electrifying start from the hosts, with Edinson Cavani almost scoring after five minutes following a disastrous clearance by goalkeeper Alisson, and Fernandes handing them the lead after nine.
Paul Pogba started the move with a pass which Marcus Rashford sent on to Aaron Wan-Bissaka; a neat ball to Fernandes and his shot beat Alisson with the aid of a hefty deflection off Nat Phillips.
It was a disastrous start for Klopp, who must have been buoyed by Chelsea’s surprise defeat to Arsenal on Wednesday and now had the chance to move within four points of Thomas Tuchel’s side, with a game in hand.
But following a long season of so many disappointments, Liverpool are finally showing their own, old qualities and, by midway through the first half, had a stranglehold on the game.
They were probably unfortunate to have a penalty overruled after Anthony Taylor first judged that Eric Bailly had gone through and fouled Phillips, as United struggled to clear a 26th minute corner, and then changed his mind after VAR sent him to a pitch side monitor.
But, finally, Jota scored a magnificent equaliser after United again struggled to properly deal with a Liverpool corner. It ended with a blocked Mo Salah shot and a Phillips strike which Jota diverted into the goal with a superb back heel from six yards.
Set-pieces remained a problem for United’s defence and, in first-half injury-time, Liverpool took a deserved lead from a pinpoint Trent Alexander-Arnold free-kick which Firmino met at the far-post, having shed his marker Pogba, to head firmly home.
It took United’s defence little more than 60 seconds after the restart to self-destruct again and hand a second goal to Firmino which as good as confirmed the outcome.
First Fred gave the ball to Alexander-Arnold, Luke Shaw then had the chance to dribble out of defence but was dispossessed, eventually presenting the Liverpool full-back with a shot which Henderson spilled directly to Firmino to tap in.
Three United mistakes in one move, three Liverpool goals in 47 minutes and three priceless points for Klopp’s Champions League hopes.
Jota might have made it four, when he hit the post after a lightning-fast counter-attack, and Marcus Rashford threatened to make him pay for that miss with a brilliant finish, turning in Edinson Cavani’s clever through ball, after 67 minutes.
But Phillips’ goalline clearance, from a Mason Greenwood shot soon after was key and Salah broke half the length of the field in 90 minutes to beat Henderson in emphatic style.
Henderson 5; Wan-Bissaka 6, Bailly 5 (Matic 86), Lindelof 5, Shaw 5; McTominay 6, Fred 5 (Greenwood 63, 6); Rashford 7, Fernandes 7, Pogba 6; Cavani 7.
Alisson 6; Alexander-Arnold 9, Phillips 8, R Williams 6, Roberston 6; Thiago 6, Fabinho 7, Wijnaldum 7 (Jones 74, 6); Salah 7 (N Williams 90), Firmino 8, Jota 8 (Mane 74, 6).
Anthony Taylor 7.