Premier League: Rejuvenated Paul Pogba fuels Solskjaer's bid to make Liverpool fresh victims of his Manchester United revolution
United come into their biggest match since that cold December night against Liverpool on a mazy run of eleven victories in thirteen games, including wins at Wembley, Emirates, and Stamford Bridge
On Sunday, however, Paul Pogba will walk out at Old Trafford as the undisputed talisman of Manchester United
For so long, almost the entirety of his second stint at United, Pogba has faced flak for his poor work rate, his unwillingness to scrap and fight for the ball
Tied on points with Manchester City with a game in hand, there is a genuine and justified belief around Merseyside that this is, indeed, their year
It’s a cold December evening in Merseyside. Movement is limited by the density of air, but those who have dared to venture outside the comfort zones of their blankets and heaters are using every silent moment to rub their hands. Even Anfield seems quieter than usual. The PA system keeps pumping out one Beatles hit after the other. And suddenly, as the Liverpool players make their way back to pitch for the second half, the entire stadium morphs into a living, breathing beast.
(The match between Manchester United and Liverpool will be played on Sunday at 19.35 IST, and will be shown live on the Star Sports network, with live-streaming available on Hotstar)
It is, after all, the big North-West Derby. The electronic scoreboard reads 1-1. Manchester United, on form, are no match to Liverpool, but the game still hangs in balance. Both teams need a positive result but neither have done enough to wrest control.
United choose to implement a change of personnel at the onset of the second half. It has been coming. Now would be a good time to fix the errors made with the starting lineup, especially the glaring one. The fourth official starts fiddling with his board, the away end roars with anticipation, and Marouane Fellaini strides onto the pitch. In the background, Paul Pogba slumps further into his seat.
Pogba has been waiting. Seventy days ago, he was kept out of this very derby to settle some sort of personal score. On Sunday, however, he will walk out at Old Trafford as the undisputed talisman of Manchester United. That his teams play well when he does has never been in question, but we’re now seeing a side of Pogba that merits all the hype around him. He’s running at defences, intercepting moves, and dictating the tempo like some warped concoction of Vieira and Zidane. Contrary to a lazy and utterly inaccurate theory that’s thrown at him lately, he’s changing games for United against the big guns too.
At Emirates, his driving run through midfield set up the space for Anthony Martial to pounce on a rebound — which came from Pogba’s shot itself — and seal a victory for United. At Wembley, his sublime, perfectly-weighted through-ball set up Marcus Rashford for the winner in a 1-0 triumph. At Stamford Bridge this Monday, he assisted the first and scored the second in a 2-0 victory.
But perhaps, the greatest moment of Pogba’s transformation under the new leadership came against Paris Saint-Germain. For so long, almost the entirety of his second stint at United, Pogba has faced flak for his poor work rate, his unwillingness to scrap and fight for the ball. That evening, he was diving and lunging for the ball like a man possessed. PSG had taken very little time to remind United of the gulf in quality between the sides, but Pogba and the rest of his men ensured that a win had to be earned. You almost felt the urge to applaud him after his red-card.
Every redemption needs a leader. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found Paul Pogba at his angriest and hungriest. The touchpaper was waiting to be lit and Ole’s arm around Pogba’s shoulders did the rest.
United come into their biggest match since that cold December night on a mazy run of eleven victories in thirteen games. The wins at Wembley, Emirates, and Stamford Bridge stick out as proud badges for Solskjaer, whose achievements in his time at United have often been tagged with the aspect of luck. Away wins like that don’t come as a function of luck.
Liverpool, too, have a lot to be giddy about. Tied on points with Manchester City with a game in hand, there is a genuine and justified belief around Merseyside that this is, indeed, their year.
At home, they are near impregnable. They even defeated a full-strength PSG in September, and just this week, shut out Bayern Munich without as much as a shot on goal. It is their away form that will give them a few jitters. They are winless in their last seven away fixtures against teams who have been in the top four of the league table. Seven out of their last nine games at Old Trafford have ended in defeat. City are breathing down their neck, and every slip will come with heavier repercussions in their march towards the elusive league title.
The stakes are high for United too. In the race for the precious fourth spot on the table, they are a point ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea. Their ascent has come at a staggering pace, but their wretched first half of the season has left very little space for a breather.
On most occasions, a draw against title contenders is seen as a positive result. One could even hazard a guess that a couple of months back, the leadership at Manchester United might have agreed. The 2019 version of United, led by Solskjaer and Pogba, will be thinking of this as an opportunity to slay another demon.
Twenty years ago, almost to the month, United were four minutes away from a home defeat against Liverpool in the FA Cup. Then, in a fashion typical of Ferguson’s United, they turned the match and their season around. Solskjaer’s injury-time winners were the leitmotif to United’s late-season redemption in ‘99. On umpteen occasions in that season and in his career, he was a substitute sent to restore order in the United world.
On Sunday, Ole will find that the details might have changed, but the circumstances haven’t.
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