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First is first, second is nowhere

A dress rehearsal for a title challenge next year proved inconclusive

CONTRIBUTOR
Feature 11 Mar 2018, 18:38 IST
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Manchester United v Burnley - Premier League
Marcus Rashford's brace sank Liverpool last night in the Premier League

"First is First, Second is Nowhere", goes the old Bill Shankly quote, although even Shankly would have taken the victory that would have propelled his beloved Liverpool into second in yesterday afternoon's nearly top of the table clash with Manchester United.

Both Liverpool and United fans eschew their closest rivalries to retain their fiercest passions for this fixture. The two most successful teams in English football were going head-to-head for the 200th time, but this time, the 'prize' on offer as a distant second to Manchester City.

Could one team establish itself as a conceivable challenger, if not this season then in the next?

The history, the hype, the talk of global significance over, and the hostilities soon began. However, the first half was dominated by Jose Mourinho and Marcus Rashford.

United's tactics were almost perfect as they blunted away at what's left of Liverpool's 'Fab Four'. Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic restricted the space in front of the back four and Liverpool's lack of width meant it was impossible to play through United.

United did not try to play out from the back. They simply avoided Liverpool's pressing game by bypassing the midfield area.

You got the sense you were watching a real Mourinho masterclass. Then there was Rashford. Here was another young player failing to progress under Mourinho, in and out of the team, and his future ceasing to look as bright as it once had burned.

Two brilliant finishes later, his first brace since his debut put him firmly back on the map and sent United and their fans into half-time buoyancy.

The second half was equally one-sided, as United came to a near standstill. Liverpool was enjoying an incredible amount of possession, but failed to turn it into chances. An Eric Bailly own-goal gave them a lift, but they lacked their usual slick, brave style of football and were always just that bit more hesitant.

Despite this, the pressure grew until, in the end, United were holding on, if not hanging on. For the Manchester team, this is nothing new; there are seemingly always times during a game when they simply stop playing. Perhaps it mirrors their manager's natural caution.

The stats say Liverpool were much better in this game than they actually were. They dominated possession and the corner and the shots tally. The usual failings, in this case, with Dejan Lovren and Trent Alexander-Arnold particularly culpable, will continue to hurt them.

They have been better. For United, more complete performances are needed. They need the license and the bravery to go and put games to bed. As a dress rehearsal for the challenge of toppling Manchester City next season, it was promising in parts, but City fans won't be too worried by what they saw in the 'biggest game on the planet'.

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