There’s something about rivalries that defies form and narrative. True rivalries stand alone, independent of context and circumstance. This much was evident once again in Sunday’s Manchester United-Liverpool showdown, the 203rd time they have met, producing a 1-1 draw.
Years after Sir Alex Ferguson had delivered on the objective he had set for himself and then some, he admitted that when he’d taken the Manchester United job in 1986, he wanted nothing more than to “knock Liverpool off its perch.” He even used an F-word adjective that we can’t print on this family website.
Liverpool had won the league four times in the 1970s and six times in the ‘80s. United hadn’t won it since 1967. And the Reds dominated the continent then, winning the European Cup four times in eight years. What’s more, they played beautiful soccer. They had the biggest stars. Most intolerably of all, they were inarguably the bigger club then.
The thing you have to understand about Liverpool and Manchester is that, for all their similarities as cities, they have been economic rivals for centuries. Ever since the inland Manchester learned how to canal its way out to sea and bypass Liverpool, the harbor city. Which is to say that this runs a lot deeper than soccer.
Ferguson, the intense gum-chomper from a bad neighborhood of Glasgow, became a Mancunian icon by ending Liverpool’s reign. Ferguson built a juggernaut that won 13 Premier League titles in 21 seasons and lifted the Champions League trophy twice. And while Liverpool also won a European crown in that time, and another last year, it hasn’t been the champion of England and Wales since 1990.
It came close last year, setting a club record for points and losing out only to a historically strong Manchester City side. Liverpool was closer still in 2014, in Steven Gerrard’s famous “it doesn’t slip now” slip. There was an adjective in there as well. The same one.
Ferguson retired in 2013 and since then United has tumbled a long ways off that perch it conquered. After Ferguson held the job for 27 years, the Red Devils are on their fifth manager in the six ensuing years. The club is a shambles. Its owners only care about money. Its transfer policy is incoherent. The youth academy runs dry. New players seem to regress the instant they put on a United jersey. And there’s no evidence of knowhow in a front office led by Ed Woodward, an investment banker who somehow found himself in charge of one of the world’s richest soccer clubs.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who looks like he sleeps no more than 5 hours a night, is never more than a loss or two away from losing the job. Meantime, Liverpool is ascendant, playing a brand of supercharged soccer admired universally as the reverence for manager Jurgen Klopp, the beaming German with the capped teeth and disarming sense of perspective, only grows.
Going into Sunday’s game, the re-reversal of fortunes was amply evident. Liverpool had made a perfect start to the season – eight wins from eight and a five-point lead over City. United was slumming it in 12th place going into the ninth matchday, just two points above the relegation zone. Liverpool, in fact, was a single victory away from tying City’s record of 18 consecutive league wins. How sweet was the prospect of tying the record at Old Trafford, of all places.
Another clear sign of the new disparity was in the squad sheets. Absent Paul Pogba, forward Marcus Rashford was the only player in United’s starting lineup who would stand a chance of getting into Liverpool’s team. Even goalkeeper David de Gea is occasionally so iffy that most managers would prefer Liverpool’s Alisson.
And here was the biggest thing of all: United long holding a 1-0 lead against these rampant Reds was considered a major upset in and of itself. Never mind that, in the end, it came from a Rashford goal after the Video Assistant Referee refused to overturn it for a United foul earlier on in the sequence of play. And that Sadio Mane’s ostensible equalizer later in the first half was disallowed by that same VAR for the slightest graze of the ball on his hand, even though it grazed Victor Lindelof’s fist as well.
On the strength of the whole game, United probably deserved a win, never mind that it caved in when the Reds finally got their acts together in the late going, producing Adam Lallana’s simple tap-in equalizer in the 85th minute. Still, United still hasn’t lost a home game it was leading at halftime in 35 years. And it didn’t Sunday.
So ended Liverpool’s winning run. And United’s undefeated run against Liverpool at home thus extended to six games, with three wins. The all-time head-to-head record remains 80-66 in United’s favor, now with 57 draws.
United finished the matchday in 13th place, yet another spot closer to the humiliation of the relegation zone. But even if everything else remains terrible in United’s world for the rest of this season and maybe the next few, at least it wasn’t beaten by Liverpool at home. And that perch isn’t entirely Liverpool’s yet.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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