"The Sun was right, you're murderers".
Anfield. The home of Liverpool Football Club, England's most successful member in the elite European circles, and one of the loudest and proudest cauldrons in world football, despite its modest capacity of 45,000. On an ordinary night, when any player in anything other than a red kit walks in, he can go weak at the knees. When that crowd of forty-odd thousand sings You’ll never walk alone, it can put the ninety-odd thousand of the Nou Camp — another of Europe's hallowed grounds — to shame.
On a big night, Anfield is a temple of doom. And the 11 on the field in red are gods.
And there is no night bigger at Anfield than Liverpool versus Manchester United. Not even Everton draws such pure hatred from the Kop, despite the shared bitter history between the Merseyside clubs.
It's not just the fact that Liverpool and Manchester United are the two most successful English clubs (the two have won 38 league titles, eight European Cups, three Uefa Cups, four Uefa Super Cups, 18 FA Cups, 12 League Cups, and 35 FA Community Shields between them) and that they are widely recognised and supported globally. It's the socio-economic, cultural and political histories of the two great north-western cities of England.
Barely 55 kilometres apart, Liverpool and Manchester locked horns over claims to being the second city of the British Empire since the turn of the 18th Century. The rivalry soured further with the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894. The merchants from Manchester were tired of paying their Liverpool counterparts for all Mancunian imports and exports. Liverpool was the major port-city, and all Manchester trade went through their buffer. But with the construction of the canal, Manchester was now directly linked to the ports of Liverpool and the Irish Sea. Liverpudlian politicians and merchants fervently resisted the construction of the canal, and why wouldn't they when leverage over a rival city and hence regional dominance was at stake?
The hatred travelled, from the ports to the football grounds, and one of world's greatest football fixtures took birth, growing to become one of world's greatest football rivalries.
So, when Manchester United took to Anfield on Thursday night in the Round of 16 of the Europa League, the first European fixture between the two clubs, it was naturally an "I was there" moment for both sets of fans. Jurgen Klopp himself called it the "mother of all games".
And buried between the songs and chants of the Liverpool faithful, yet hardly drowned, one could hear the travelling United fans chant "The Sun was right, you're murderers". Such is the bitterness between the two that United fans mocked Liverpool over the tragic Hillsborough disaster. One could smell the hatred in the air, even over television.
Ninety minutes later, United fans were fumbling for words, left silenced, humbled by the sheer ignominy. Probably the biggest Liverpool-Manchester United game in recent memory, their first outside the domestic league; Manchester United picked the wrong night for what was one of their worst performances of the season. It wasn't just the fact that they lost 2-0, but that they didn't even offer a fight, didn't even make a proper game out of it, incensed the United fans. One could see that on former Red Devils gaffer Sir Alex Ferguson's face; sitting in attendance, chewing his gum, red-nosed and shaking his head in dismay.
But the night wasn't as much about former managers as it was about the current ones and their stamp on their respective teams. Liverpool and Manchester United's performances last night were uncanny embodiments of their respective managers Klopp and Louis van Gaal — one electric, flamboyant, frantic and fun; the other frail, hapless, clueless, and dull. It was as if only Liverpool understood the importance of the occasion. Maybe the United of today with its completely new set of players, were unbeknownst to that Liverpool-United toxicity.
The United the world knows, the one with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and that generation, would have never folded their cards like that even if they were ailing from a million problems. Had Wayne Rooney, who himself comes from the blue side of Merseyside and who once publicly said that he hated Liverpool, been on the teamsheet last night, he would have fought, even though of late we have seen the fight fizzle out of him.
Instead, United's hopes were thrust upon the 18-year-old shoulders of Marcus Rashford. And to lead him, United's captain on the night was Juan Mata, a fine player but hardly a galvanising presence on the field. His counterpart, Jordan Henderson, playing his 300th game for Liverpool, learnt the tropes of leadership from Steven Gerrard himself, one of the last great leaders of the game. In hindsight, the result is anything but shocking. The game was screaming its own prediction right from the whistle at kick-off.
Klopp, the most eagerly sought-after free agent (as a manager, mind you) in club football before Liverpool landed him, has had an odd time at Liverpool. He inherited half a squad, even without any injuries. The transfer committee hovering over the shoulders of his predecessor Brendan Rodgers had already done the damage. But the club has fed off his infectious energy. Liverpool, like Klopp, have been eccentric; destroying Manchester City twice in the league, on either side of that hard-fought League Cup final loss to the same team in penalty shootouts. They outclassed Chelsea, who suffer from troubles of their own but nevertheless act like a decent team in big games.
New recruits Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana looked like shadows of their current selves under Rodgers. Today, they look like bundles of joy, running unbridled on the field, spurned under Klopp. The Kop's voices have grown stronger furthermore, the chorus booms louder, "You'll never walk alone". Yes, managers can make a huge difference. And if Klopp's Liverpool isn't proof enough, Van Gaal's United is more than happy to oblige. A season full of dull nil-nil draws, a season of losses to obscure teams, of "boring boring Man United", of passing behind rather than galloping forward; Manchester United has fallen flat on its backside, much like Van Gaal in that dramatic game against Arsenal.
As Van Gaal's time at Old Trafford nears its end, one wonders who can be the man to take United forward. They need not the Jose Mourinho fix, but a trip to intensive care. It was always going to be hard after 25 years of Sir Alex. Break-ups like those hurt a lot. But nothing can come close to last night for Manchester United in terms of hurting. This wound will be remembered for long. It will come back to haunt and hurt United on lonely nights. There will be a return leg, true. But there's no return from Thursday night’s end.
First Published On : Mar 11, 2016 16:34 IST