Sports FOOTBALL Reds go top as Salah torments United again

Reds go top as Salah torments United again

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With the second-half restart delayed, bizarrely, while the referee, Martin Atkinson, had his microphone refitted, Manchester United’s players tried to stay on their toes by passing a ball about. The Kop responded with oles. It was a typically caustic judgment but one that felt entirely appropriate.

To borrow another line from the Liverpool support, their arch rivals hardly touched the ball during what was another chastening defeat. After the 5-0 humbling from last October, this was another occasion that showed Liverpool to be on an altogether different plane.

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United were a shambles, their defeat grimly inevitable from the moment that Luis Díaz gave Liverpool an early lead and they were in disarray when Mohamed Salah ran onto a pass from the substitute, Diogo Jota, to chip home the fourth.

Inspired by the peerless Thiago Alcântara, Liverpool got the result to take them to the top of the Premier League table, at least until Manchester City play Brighton at home on Wednesday night. Salah got the second – his first goal in open play for 12 matches – and Sadio Mané scored the third, with Liverpool piling on the pain. For United, the full-time whistle was the only mercy.

United might have signed for a non-humiliating defeat at kick-off, such have been their struggles, with the 5-0 loss at Old Trafford having cast a long shadow. Liverpool were in the deepest vein of form; United had almost forgotten what it was to win convincingly or to have a coherent and consistent plan.

Ralf Ragnick twisted again with his lineup and system, recalling Phil Jones in the middle of a back three, which he said had worked well in training on Monday. So that’ll do, then. The last time that United had gone with Harry Maguire, Jones and Victor Lindelöf in a back three was in the 3-3 draw at Sheffield United in November 2019. Jones was hooked at half-time, with the team 1-0 down.

Luis Díaz slots past David de Gea to open the scoring for Liverpool. Photographer: John Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

Liverpool’s confidence at the outset was reflected in Alisson pulling a Cruyff-style move on Bruno Fernandes before getting his team moving, and the breakthrough goal showcased their well-grooved understandings. United could not lay a glove on them as they worked the ball up from the back, Salah laying off to Jordan Henderson who found Mané in a large seam of space. He released Salah into an even larger one up the right and the cross was made to measure for Díaz.

It was a touching moment when, on seven minutes, the Liverpool fans joined their United counterparts in clapping for Cristiano Ronaldo, who was on compassionate leave following the death of his baby son in childbirth.

Liverpool called the tune, dominating the ball, supremely untroubled at the back. They were able to waltz into spaces – Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold, in particular, had oodles of it on the right while Thiago seemed to be playing with his own ball – and the worry for United was when the home team quickened the pace.

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They did so midway through the first half and, suddenly, it was 2-0. Joël Matip stepped forward, got the ball back from Díaz and played it to Mané. Salah was already running off Diogo Dalot, the makeshift left wing-back, and Mané pivoted to find him. It was a brilliant assist. Salah took a touch before steering home.

Rangnick had watched Paul Pogba, jeered by the United support in Saturday’s home win over Norwich, limp off in the 10th minute and, even at that early juncture, it felt as though the midfielder had concluded that he was better off out of there.

United were error-strewn, they could barely string two passes together – and, on the two occasions before the interval that they thought they had got Marcus Rashford away with high balls over the top, the striker’s touch deserted him.

Mohamed Salah beats De Gea for the fourth goal.
Mohamed Salah beats De Gea for the fourth goal. Photographer: Phil Noble/Reuters

Rangnick had to feel that the half-time damage could have been worse. Certainly, Liverpool had created the openings. His response? To haul off Jones and switch to 4-3-3. Rangnick craved something, anything. A passing sequence. Glory be, a shot. It was not until the 55th minute that United managed one – a tame effort from the substitute, Jadon Sancho.

It was Liverpool’s sixth game in 18 days – two more than United in the same period – although it was not easy to tell. They made the ball do the work, nobody more so than Thiago, who pinged his passes and glided over the turf, swerving here, swaggering there.

Almost implausibly, given what had happened in the first half, United dug out something of a foothold in the first part of the second period and Rashford, flagged offside but clearly on for VAR purposes, blew a one-on-one with Alisson. Rashford labored horribly, although he was not alone.

But Liverpool restored order on 68 minutes when Andy Robertson stepped up to rob Anthony Elanga and feed Díaz, whose cut-back was lovely. Mané directed the finish inside David de Gea’s left-hand post.

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