Jurgen Klopp faces up to renascent Manchester United in ‘special’ rivalry

Jurgen Klopp put the emphasis on the definite article. “It is the game against United,” he said. “Quite a big club as well and always when we face them it is massive.” Klopp was 48 before he experienced Liverpool against Manchester United in the flesh, but his memories of the meetings of English football’s two biggest and most successful clubs dated back to his boyhood in Germany. It is a match that he feels defines the sport, that gives it some of the meaning football requires to offer escapism from the problems of day-to-day life.

“The whole world will watch it,” he said. “I will watch it. The moment when Liverpool v United is not a special game any more then something went really wrong. Liverpool v Man Utd, who? That would be really difficult, that would be really sad.

“I love football, I love the fuss we make of it, most of the time at least, and then it is like, ‘Liverpool v United, I want to see it’. It has to be like that otherwise football would have absolutely no right to exist any more. Again? Really? And how are they are doing?

“People want to know and need to know what both clubs are doing. That is why I have no problem with them, particularly. It is a big game and it always was in my life a big game; since I was allowed to watch it on television it always was. Thank God it is still one.”

The question of what each club is doing has produced very different answers last season and this; then Liverpool were beating United 5-0 and 4-0, finishing 34 points ahead of them, competing for four trophies and winning two. Now United are fighting on four fronts, with silverware already secured. They are 10 points ahead of Liverpool and, while they have been busy with their cup commitments, that lead has been trimmed from 14 in the last week. “Yes, they play a better season than us so far but thank God that means absolutely nothing for the game on Sunday,” Klopp said.

The argument that form is irrelevant in such meetings has not always stood up to scrutiny. Last season’s twin thrashings were not anomalies but indicative of broader trends, of much that Liverpool were doing right and United wrong. If many have been taken aback by the turnaround Erik ten Hag has orchestrated, Klopp is not among them. Perhaps there is an inevitability to clubs of Liverpool and United’s magnitude rousing themselves from the doldrums, though that would be to downplay Klopp’s feat in inheriting a club in 10th place and making them champions of Europe and, for the first time in three decades, of England.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Now United are renascent. They are still more of a financial superpower than Liverpool but Klopp saw potential in the players Ten Hag was bequeathed, albeit in an underachieving team, and a short-termism in the approach. He built for the future whereas the Ten Hag signings who are his first-choice pairing in midfield, Christian Eriksen and Casemiro, are both in their thirties. The Dane will miss the trip to Anfield but has been a catalyst. Casemiro scored in the Carabao Cup final.

“It is obviously not a team built for the next 20 years because the players they signed are for now but for now it is really good,” said Klopp. “Surprised? Probably not. Go through the team. How could they not be good? They don’t have one player where you think, ‘Woah, what is he doing there?’ They are really experienced, they have quality, and a new way to defend. Defensively [it is] a massive difference, properly man orientated and with the ball, just quality. It’s a good idea, but super experienced players came in like Eriksen and Casemiro. They were all over the world successful.”

The extra dimension is that Marcus Rashford, in Klopp’s words, is in the form of his life. The Mancunian has 25 goals this season, the first against Liverpool. He has been a past scourge of the Merseysiders, with six goals against them. Klopp has long been a fan of Rashford as both player and person.

“It is difficult, I would say pretty much impossible, to be happy about something positive at Manchester United when you are the Liverpool manager. I am here for seven-and-a-half years, it’s not that I watch them and hope they win,” he said. “But I am really happy for Rashford. He had a difficult year last year and I knew this would change again and now he is playing incredible. His speed, technique, mix of everything. How calm he is in front of goal, he scores worldies, he scores the simple ones, he’s there, he puts his head in.”

Mohamed Salah has often been the player in the game. Now Klopp and Liverpool have to ensure it is not Rashford.