Firmino fires Liverpool past Manchester United and into top-four reckoning

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·5-min read
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For Liverpool, what felt like a pre‑match decoy was only the beginning. With the air once again heavy with Manchester United fan protest, there was briefly the worry that the visitors’ team bus might not make it through to the stadium.

It was fired by footage of a red coach emblazoned with Liverpool’s colours being blocked in by cars outside a city centre hotel.

Related: Gary Neville says Glazers have turned Old Trafford into a ‘prison’ amid protests

In the event, Liverpool arrived on a couple of dark-coloured coaches, which slipped in around the back of Old Trafford, up a little road through the W3 car park and alongside the Manchester International Freight Terminal – rather than the expected entrance via John Gilbert Way.

The club said there had been no subterfuge and it was, frankly, a little difficult to unpick. But what was written all across Old Trafford was the way they outmanoeuvred United to ignite their push for a Champions League finish.

They had started slowly but, driven by a magnificent performance by Trent Alexander-Arnold, they reeled in their old rivals and, when the dust on a wild night had settled, they could reflect on having taken control of their top-four destiny.

With the teams directly above them – Chelsea and Leicester – meeting at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday and, as such, one or both certain to drop points, Liverpool know that three wins from their final three games will most likely suffice, although it could come down to goal difference with Leicester.

Jürgen Klopp used Sadio Mané only as a 74th-minute substitute and the winger appeared to clash with him on the field after full time. But the Liverpool manager knew only happiness upon one of the finest displays of a difficult season.

Liverpool crackled to life midway through the first half and, by the interval, they had turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead.

The truth was that their advantage could have been greater and that was certainly the case as they tore into United in the first half of the second period.

Somehow United weathered the storm and, when Edinson Cavani played in Marcus Rashford to cut the deficit to 3-2, the hosts sensed an unlikely reprieve. The substitute Mason Greenwood had a shot cleared off the line by Nat Phillips.

But when Mohamed Salah raced clear to round off yet another fast and incisive counter at the very end, Liverpool could exhale. Now for the last three hurdles which, on this evidence, they will back themselves to clear – West Brom and Burnley away followed by Crystal Palace at home.

For United, there was only frustration and it was shocking to witness how they went from a position of strength to disarray. They misplaced passes, misjudged the amount of time they had on the ball and repeatedly had their pockets picked as they tried to play out from the back. One thing was clear – they will dice with disaster in the Europa League final against Villarreal if they play with this kind of looseness.

Roberto Firmino heads Liverpool’s second goal past Dean Henderson.
Roberto Firmino heads Liverpool’s second goal past Dean Henderson. Photograph: Dave Thompson/Reuters

The United players had arrived at the stadium in their own cars at lunchtime and, if the pre-match scene was coloured by the huge police presence outside the stadium together with surveillance in the skies, it was driven by the anger of the fans who desperately want the Glazer family out of their club.

Related: Alexander-Arnold reminds us why we love football amid outside drama | Jonathan Liew

Around 500 diehards lit flares and sang their songs on the forecourt while a 10-foot barrier offered protection to the Munich tunnel, which had been breached by the protesters before the original fixture on the Sunday before last, causing the game’s postponement.

Alisson got away with a stray pass out to Cavani early on and United went in front when Bruno Fernandes took a cut-back from Aaron Wan‑Bissaka and unfurled a trivela. It was hard to say whether it would have curled in but Phillips’s lunge made sure, the defender inadvertently slicing past Alisson.

Liverpool shook their heads clear. Diogo Jota equalised with a lovely flick after Phillips had worked the ball into the six-yard box and Roberto Firmino gave them the lead before half-time when he ran off the slumbering Paul Pogba to head in Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick.

Liverpool had wanted a penalty in the third minute when Firmino, played in by Alexander-Arnold, watched a shot go through Eric Bailly’s block and hit the defender’s hand – an award would have been harsh. They then got one on 26 minutes only for VAR to confirm that Bailly had swiped the ball before cleaning out Phillips.

Jota had twice worked Dean Henderson before the interval and United’s defensive looseness was stamped all over Firmino’s second goal at the start of the second half.

Fred gave away possession on the edge of the area only for United to resist but, after Luke Shaw was robbed by Jota, Alexander-Arnold’s angled drive drew a weak parry from Henderson. Firmino gobbled up the rebound.

Jota rattled the post when one‑on-one while Henderson had to save from Alexander-Arnold. United hinted at the grandstand finish but the last word belonged to Salah.