If you woke up feeling warm and fuzzy despite the cold creeping up your nose, it’s probably because you had tuned into either see Manchester United or Liverpool FC play in last night’s Boxing Day fixtures and less to do with the cup of hot chocolate that you may or may not be sipping on. It was glorious.
We take a look at the finer points of the matches and tell you that your delight is well-founded.
Manchester United 4 (Anothony Martial 24, Mason Greenwood 36, Marcus Rashford 41, Anthony Martial 51) – Newcastle United 1 (Matthew Longstaff 17)
Football’s premier tactical analyst Michael Cox had this to say about the match: “An incredibly on-brand display from Solskjaer's Man Utd. Started the game playing a team below them in the table, so performed badly and went behind. That goal meant their opponents were now ahead of them in the live league table and therefore they dutifully started playing well."
Now, while this tongue-in-cheek, it alluded to an undeniable standard (or the lack of) that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United have set for themselves: Effervescent against the top of the table teams: Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool; and stale as a leftover plum cake against the like of Watford – all crumbly and dusty, leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Last night though, the performance as steaming, hot waffles. Extra maple syrup.
Jetro Willems was one of the chief perps of the Newcastle counter in the opening 15 minutes. It was through him that Steve Bruce’s team made headway down the wings. Joelinton and Dwight Gayle dovetailed on the 16th minute, leaving Gayle through on goal beating the offside flag that was never raised. One-on-one against David De Gea, the 29-year-old thumps his effort for a rugby goal. Rugby rules naturally do not apply to football.
Miguel Almiron, Newcastle’s Major League Soccer import who is steadily finding his feet in the Premier League found Matthew Longstaff through a rapier-like through ball, inch-perfect. Longstaff then floated the ball to Joelinton who used his back to bump the body check from Manchester United centre-back Harry Maguire and puts it on plate-like for Longstaff to take his time, pick a corner and ship the ball home. It seemed if it was going to follow the script. “Ah, same ol’, same ol’ Manchester. Can’t bring themselves up to play with pride that’s reserved for the bigger sides.”
It was by the 24th-minute point that Manchester United began to shake themselves out of a post-Christmas slumber. Whether it was partly down to the fact that they realised a defeat would mean it spoils the Christmas season for fans of one of the most followed teams in the world is up for conjecture. But instead of a pall of gloom falling around Old Trafford, the Manchester faithful were baying their team forward towards the Newcastle goal. There was an understanding finally in place, perhaps. For long the red half of Manchester have felt a disconnect with the team they spend their hard-earned money on to watch week in, week out.
By the 24th minute, the equaliser came. A clever stitchwork of passes down Manchester United’s left-hand saw Andreas Pereira getting the ball at the feet, who prodded it to an onrushing Anthony Martial. A side-foot shot had the precision but not the requisite power, but that didn’t stop the ball from squeezing through the two arms of Newcastle goalkeeper and briskly sauntering into the net. It should have been a regulation save, but luck were with the men in red.
Mason Greenwood was a doubt for the match. Manchester United who fans were out in force on Twitter to demand that the youngster starts had their choice vindicated with a thunderous 25-yard shot from the edge of the box that clipped off a Newcastle defender, Federico Fernández and found the roof of the net.
It was 3-1 to the home side before half-time as the bulk of Manchester’s possession weighed heavy on Newcastle. And it wasn’t the thumb-twilling kind of possession that Solskjaer’s side has been guilty of. It had murderous intent. On the 41st minute, Marcus Rashford killed off any Newcastle hopes. Aaron Wan Bissaka took a leaf out of Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold’s playbook and set up the Manchester number 10 with an early cross that found the striker’s head at the far post.
Even before the last goal came, Manchester United had 80 percent of possession. The pressure mounted on a usually cool Longstaff, who passed the ball to Martial close to the Newcastle box. The Frenchman accelerated and chipped the ball over Martin Dúbravka.
When the whistle blew the game ended with the men in red chalking up more than twice the amounts of shots Newcastle mustered, and five times the amount of shots on target.
Have Manchester United finally found a way to break down teams that sit back? Solskjaer is hopeful:
“Today was 10-15 minutes of everything going right,” he said in the post-match press conference. “We are finding our identity. We need to know our identity. We can’t wait until next season.”
Emphatic performances vs lower rung sides has long been a part of the fabric of the famous Manchester United side. This win will leave their fans with some nostalgia.
Leicester City 0 - Liverpool 4 (Roberto Firmino 31, James Milner 71 p, Roberto Firmino 74, Trent Alexander-Arnold 78)
Searching what you can say about this Liverpool side that hasn’t already been said ought to be better left with people with the proclivity to writing versions of The Illiad and Prose Edda.
Journalists, while they will be able to put into context the stats and the numbers that this Liverpool side is slaying in purely surface-level details, the myth-building needs to fit the grandeur of the act. Hire poets, hire artisans, hire mural makers, for Jurgen Klopp’s team need to be shown in the glow of Liverpool’s legendary teams of past, for they might not only sit beside them but take the seat up at the head of the grand oval table serving feasts worthy of Valhalla. While it may not sink in at the moment, fan or rival, you are witnessing history unfold in front of your eyes. And those in the stands, they are drinking the rare air like mugs of rum for the lungs, for the moments that they are living will soon be part of tapestries.
Klopp, of course, went out of his way to play down the performance in an attempt to not only temper expectation, but for his charges to keep their eyes firmly on the next game – reasonably so, because, really taking it one game at a time is all they can do.
“Oh, we know the story – never before in the history of English football has a team had a bigger advantage and lost that lead. But that sounds, negative. So why should we think about it? We are just focused on the next games,” Klopp said in the post-game press conference. He has a point. What follows this utterly convincing win against second-placed Leicester are by no means an easy fixture list:
“We have Wolves, Sheffield United, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United in the next five games so it doesn’t sound like anything is decided. The points gap (on 52 points, a gap of 13 points between them and Leicester, 14 between Liverpool and Manchester City, the defending champions) is absolutely not relevant.”
Former Liverpool manager and current Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers chimed in with the pragmatism: “Liverpool will be very, very hard to stop. They’re a fantastic team and the confidence is high. They have enough quality and experience to get the job done, though there is still a lot to do.”
Man of the moment, Trent Alexander Arnold, who had three assists and a goal (that was reminiscent of Carlos Alberto as many gushing pointed out) feels that there is a long way to go: “You don’t really think you’re going to be in this position but we’re not going to take anything for granted and just keep going.”
Liverpool fans will remember Leicester’s King Power stadium as the site where the World Champions Trent Alexander-Arnold, coronated himself as the best fullback in the world at the tender age of 21.
His resulting cross from a headed out ball coming in from the left was planted plumply on the head of Roberto Firmino. Another corner from the foot of Arnold struck the hand of Leicester defender Caglar Soyuncu, from which substitute James Milner converted from the spot with his first touch. Later, the 66-wearing fullback’s square, low cross found a Roberto Firmino hanging in the box. The Brazilian spanked the ball into the top of the net, almost as if declaring his return to form. And lastly, a Mbappe celebration following a sumptuous first-time shot from the edge of the area from a through ball supplied by Sadio Mane rounded up a picture book performance. Liverpool have in their ranks many once-in-a-lifetime players, but it is Trent whose potential shines the brightest. He’s their playmaker in a fullback position. Or as Jaime Carragher puts it, Kevin De Bruyne is Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Jamie Vardy was closed down by a mercurial, 22-year-old Joe Gomez and Co. This was perhaps the most competent and convincing show of game management and defensive organisation under Klopp. And there’s room to improve.
If you’re a Liverpool fan, you can’t help but be a poet.
Arsenal drew 1-1 away to Bournemouth in Mikel Arteta’s first game in charge. Frank Lampard’s Chelsea had the blues last night losing 0-2 to Southampton at home.
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Updated Date: Dec 27, 2019 13:49:31 IST