If Liverpool’s first-half performance in their FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City on Saturday dealt a psychological blow to their Premier League title rivals, then they may just have landed another on Pep Guardiola’s men on Tuesday night.
The Reds showed no hangover from their Wembley exploits as they destroyed Manchester United 4-0 at Anfield. “Over to you, City.”
It was a sweet win for Liverpool supporters and lifted their team back to the top of the Premier League table. Aside from a brief stint for an hour or two a few weeks back, Liverpool have rarely been in this position. In fact, you have to go all the way back to late September for the solitary time Liverpool topped the standings at the end of a round of matches.
But the hunters – who have overhauled the huge points deficit they were facing in January – now become the hunted for the next 24 hours at least, with the focus switching to City and whether they can win at home to Brighton on Wednesday night to push their way back to the front of the title race.
That will be no easy task – just ask Arsenal and Tottenham, who Brighton have beaten in back-to-back games – and the extent to which City have recovered physically and mentally from the weekend (and their gruelling Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid) will be fascinating to see.
City and Liverpool have been involved in some incredible battles for the Premier League crown in recent seasons, raising the standard to such an extent neither team dare slip up.
But it’s City now having to play catch up – and the pressure is on.
Things have hardly been going badly for Liverpool in recent weeks. They are now unbeaten in nine games in all competitions and are 13 unbeaten in the league as they still chase an unprecedented quadruple.
However, a lot of talk has been focussed on Mohamed Salah’s form.
The Egyptian hadn’t scored in eight games before his double against Man Utd, and questions were being asked of Jurgen Klopp, who recently rested him against Benfica in the Champions League.
All those doubts surrounding Salah were firmly put to bed against United as he got back on the scoresheet and looked a lot more like his old self, which had Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher excited about the run-in to the season.
He said: “The thing that gives me belief that this could be a really special season is the performances in the last two games. Liverpool for the last eight to ten games have been getting the job done, a great quality to have, but tonight I felt like the energy was back. The zip in the passing, the pressing and it was there against Manchester City at the weekend.
“With Mo Salah coming back as well, it’s not just his goals but it’s the sharpness, the energy. That’s what he’d been struggling with, it wasn’t just the goals, he hadn’t looked himself in games. If Liverpool can keep that between now and the end of the season that gives me real belief that it could be a really special season.”
Following his brace, Salah is the first player in Premier League history to score five goals against Manchester United in a single campaign. He is also just the second player to both score and assist in home and away Premier League games against United in a single season, after Mesut Ozil in 2015-16.
Despite his recent dry spell in front of goal, his two goals at Anfield have taken his tally for the league season to 22, stretching his lead at the top of the Premier League goal scoring charts to five goals over Heung-Min Son. Crisis? What crisis?
And if this is the start of yet another productive spell in front of goal for Salah, it might just turn Liverpool into history makers.
Klopp had talked it up as a meeting between the two biggest teams in England and it had that big-game feel right up until kick-off when the reality became clear. Liverpool played at a pace that United could not comprehend let alone cope with.
Their trajectory feels so different as they chase an unprecedented quadruple that would not only leave their rivals in the shade but eclipse the outstanding achievement in Manchester United’s history. How can the gulf between the two be this great?
Thiago Alcantara was a class above most on this pitch but nobody in a United shirt came close. Luis Diaz, the latest find, was full of urgency from the outset. In contrast, Marcus Rashford was eased off the ball by Virgil van Dijk early on and hardly saw it again.
Alisson summed up the contrasting confidence levels with a Cruyff turn. Moments later, David de Gea hesitated when the Brazilian would surely have come out to clear. That led to the opening goal and Ralf Rangnick’s plan to contain and frustrate was in tatters.
Has a supposedly top team ever played with this little belief?
While it might still seem astonishing that two squads on similar salaries can end up delivering such contrasting performances, there should be no mystery at all as to why. This is the product of perfect planning at Liverpool, while United are yet to implement one.
Perhaps the arrival of Erik ten Hag will mark a sea change at Old Trafford. If the Dutchman is given time and trust, his body of work so far suggests that his employers will be rewarded. But that is for the future. The verdict on the here and now came on the pitch at Anfield.
This has been a wasted season.
Where do you start with Manchester United? Is it the owners, the board, the manager or the players? One thing is for sure, it’s not the fans.
The United away support backed their team at Anfield in the only way they know how despite watching a team – a club – that has become a shell of its former self, humiliated by their great rivals. A penny for the thoughts of one of their biggest supporters, Sir Alex Ferguson, who watched, stony-faced, the latest catastrophe from high in the stands. This is not the legacy he imagined.
Ex-United legend and Sky Sports’ Roy Keane called it “sad” while Gary Neville described the club as “broken” as Liverpool showed their class and exposed the grim reality for United, who have fallen some distance behind since finishing second last season.
“It was a sobering evening,” said Neville. “We expected it. Not one Man Utd fan came here with any hope whatsoever. That team has got nothing.
“I cannot explain how it’s gone from what would be slightly promising at the end of last season finishing second – I know they lost in the Europa League final which was a bad one – to the point where we are today which is an all-time low in my 42 years of watching United. I’ve never seen it as bad as that.”
This is a club that spent over £100m last summer, re-signed the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo and were harbouring hopes of being able to mount a serious challenge to Liverpool and Manchester City.
Now it’s one with an interim manager, a protracted managerial appointment and a set of players who are uninterested, unmotivated and uninspiring. With five games left of the season, it could even get worse.