If there is one thing that the last few weeks of Roy Hodgson’s time in charge of Liverpool Football Club became notable for, it was the mass of contradiction that enveloped it. Hodgson was the wrong man for the job at the wrong time, but the hysteria that seemed to engulf the club as the team failed to find any consistency (they neither lost nor won more than two successive matches under his stewardship) ensured that rational discussion was, broadly speaking, the first casualty of the debate that ensued. By the time of Hodgson’s inevitable sacking (and let’s not start chasing down the the alley of that most misleading of football clichés, “by mutual consent”, here), it was reaching the level of something approaching collective psychosis amongst Liverpool supporters.
The last couple of days have also served up several degrees of the toxicity that has come to be one of the most dispiriting parts of the build-up to any match between these two clubs. It reached a bizarre nadir with an inter-forum contre-temps between the Liverpool forum Red & White Kop and the Manchester United forum Red Café over comments made on the Liverpool forum which were attributed to an individual or individuals that hacked an account there. Plus ça change. Meanwhile, Glen Johnson – not playing today to attend the birth of his child – was making at best unwise comments on Twitter about Paul Merson. In the build-up to a match between these two teams, every tea cup has contains a storm and every comment is seen as a perceived slight.
What, then, will Kenny Dalglish bring to the position of the manager of Liverpool Football Club? Well, “unity” seems to be the key word, and perhaps the question is whether the Liverpool players, who have been performing on the pitch as if in second gear since the season started, buy into the “Kenny as the returning Messiah” narrative that the Liverpool supporters have established over the last few days. It is worth pointing out, however, the likelihood of Liverpool actually being relegated from the Premier League has always been, for all the hysterical pronouncements made, slight. If (or when) Liverpool stay up this season, Dalglish will receive the plaudits for something that was almost certainly going to happen anyway. He is unlikely to receive the dog’s abuse that Hodgson did. To that extent, it’s a no-lose situation for him.
This, though, is an FA Cup match, and it’s Liverpool’s last chance to win a trophy this season. The pressure is on, and it is an afternoon for calm and clear heads. As such, what happens after thirty-one seconds is odd. A ball through the right-hand channel tees Dimitar Berbatov up against Daniel Agger. Berbatov goes to ground, and it’s a penalty to Manchester United. It’s not a great decision – referee Howard Webb is, unsurprisingly, considering how long the game has been going on for, badly positioned and the biggest question is whether there was minimal contact or no contact at all – but no amount of gesticulating or shouting is going to alter it. Ryan Giggs steps up and fires the ball past Reina to give Manchester United the lead.
This, however, is a nominally improved performance from Liverpool. As we might have expected, the players are showing a little more commitment than in recent matches, although they seldom truly threaten the Manchester United goal. It takes thirty minutes for the match to reignite after its early starburst but, when it does, it is hardly for the reason that Liverpool supporters might have been hoping. The tackling, from both teams, had been getting more and more tempestuous over the previous five minutes, but this is no justification for Steven Gerrard’s reckless tackle on Michael Carrick. Considering how debatable the earlier penalty was, it might have been unsurprising to see this be leniently punished. Howard Webb, then, ends the half on a fifty per cent hit rate.
In some respects the match is something of a reflection of the two teams’ seasons as a whole. Manchester United are winning without playing well. They do create chances. Jonny Evans hits the post just before half-time, Reina has to manage a passable impression of an octopus midway through the second half after an almighty scramble inside the Liverpool penalty. They look comfortable infofar as that Liverpool’s attacking threat is practically zero after Gerrard’s red card, but they are – again – not playing like champions and it does feel as if Gerrard’s moment of stupidity is the moment upon which the entire outcome of the game hinges.
Liverpool, meanwhile, do still have a slight air chaos about them. They’re not assisted in this by Gerrard’s sending off, which seems to genuinely upset Dalglish’s game plan, but that some of their players seem so capable of making bad decisions – to pluck one example from random, with about eight minutes to play a Manchester United breaks down and Dirk Kuyt receives the ball midway inside his own half. He controls the ball, looks up, and plays a pass that is not so much inaccurate as directed towards nobody in particular, handing the ball back to Manchester United without any of their players having to even break into a sweat. For all of this, however, they are improved (not that they were appalling in every match under Hodgson – it was more like every other match), and will probably continue their stop-start season through to a mid-table finish.
When the two teams met here in the Premier League earlier this season, Liverpool gave Manchester United a run for their money and were slightly unfortunate to lose, but they also held Arsenal to a draw and beat Chelsea. The biggest problem that Liverpool have had has been what should be the “bread & butter” matches – it is the losses to the likes of Blackpool, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City that have been, if anything, the biggest statistical contribution towards their relatively lowly current league position. As such, today doesn’t signify much apart from a narrow improvement in terms of their actual performance on the pitch. Kenny Dalglish is unlikely to be able to control the moments when adrenaline momentarily seizes control of the brain, such as happened to Steven Gerrard this afternoon, but the Liverpool team looked perkier and more positionally comfortable this afternoon, which is a cause for cautious optimism for their supporters.
Manchester United, meanwhile, continue to grind out results and remain unbeaten. As time passes by, it starts to look more and more difficult to see where the opposition to them is going to come from. If Chelsea are in decline, Arsenal remain inconsistent and Spurs and Manchester City are Spurs and Manchester City, the possibility certainly is still there for Manchester United to complete a treble. The (completely contradictory) flipside to this is that they are still not playing well enough for this run to continue. This year’s Manchester United team remains an enigma, just out of our reach and defying what we have come to know and understand about the game. Ultimately, however, they remain for now an unbeaten enigma, and that is as much as their supporters will care about for the time being.