LONDON – Jürgen Klopp would have been the perfect fit for Manchester United.
He had made Borussia Dortmund a European powerhouse, playing an exciting brand of attacking football. He’s respected and admired by just about everyone. His infectious personality and ready laugh give him a charisma that lights up our television screens. As much as anything, the German was available, but United decided to stay with Louis van Gaal for another season and eventually José Mourinho became the Dutchman’s successor — not a bad option, it must be said.
It was Liverpool who brought Klopp to the Premier League a year ago and for that we should be grateful. On Monday, Klopp and Mourinho go head-to-head for the sixth time and their first Merseyside-Manchester clash. It will be like nothing else they have experienced in their previous five meetings of which Klopp has won three, drawn one and lost one.
Last season Klopp masterminded United’s exit from the last 16 of the Europa League when van Gaal was on borrowed time. Now, he hopes to repeat this trick in the Premier League, though United has won all four of the last four domestic meetings.
For Mourinho, it is the chance to make history as neither club has ever won five consecutive league matches against the other.
This is not just Liverpool vs. United, the most hateful matchup in English football; it is Klopp vs. Mourinho and the Kop vs. Mourinho. The Portuguese is not a favorite, putting it mildly, with Liverpool fans from his days with Chelsea, yet 12 years ago Mourinho was touted as manager of tonight’s hosts.
Gerard Houllier was the manager and Rick Parry, Liverpool’s chief executive at the time, said: “In March 2004 a Portuguese agent turned up unannounced at Anfield. He asked whether he could have 30 minutes with me in private and although I thought it was unusual because it was completely unannounced, I agreed. The agent told me that José Mourinho was very interested in managing Liverpool and asked whether Liverpool might be interested in appointing him for the next season. It tasted badly. There has to be a more dignified manner, surely?”
Later that evening FC Porto beat Manchester United and Mourinho celebrated by running down the Old Trafford touchline to join his jubilant players in what became an iconic moment of the Champions League.
Parry said: “We all share the euphoria of beating United and nobody (feels it) more than me. But one of our core values was respect and that includes treating other clubs and people with respect. There are limits and ways of doing things. Seeing Mourinho celebrate like that reinforced my initial belief. The way he behaved sewed another seed of doubt. Of course I’m sure he’d have been a great manager for Liverpool — there’s no doubting his qualities. But was he really a Liverpool manager — did he characterize the club’s values?”
No, so Mourinho went to Chelsea instead and the rest is history, though it could have been so different. Had Mourinho taken charge of Liverpool it would effectively have ruled him out of ever managing at Old Trafford. Now that he is United’s manager do not rule out a similar celebration if the visitors leave Anfield with three points.
While Klopp’s record with Liverpool in the Premier League during his 12 months in charge is nothing to shout about, progress is being made and last season it reached the finals of both the League Cup and the Europa League.
There have been significant changes and improvement on and off the field, which are all down to Klopp. The atmosphere at Anfield is again upbeat. Players such as Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmano and Divock Origi have benefited from the German’s coaching. Klopp’s Liverpool has scored a Premier League-high 18 goals and has played some wonderful, enthralling football in the opening two months.
While there is an air of confidence at Anfield, United supporters are still waiting for the Mourinho magic to really kick-start their campaign. His CV is strong enough for no one to seriously doubt things will come good, but Mourinho needs to show his team is on course to progress. This is a massive, massive game for Mourinho because defeat would effectively end United’s title hopes.
Liverpool’s game is built around pressurizing the opposition into mistakes, pushing them back to their penalty area and capitalizing on any error. To counteract Liverpool’s pressing game, Mourinho will also need pace which means Wayne Rooney on the substitutes’ bench again and speed-merchants Anders Herrera, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard all in contention.
At the same time, Mourinho may think he needs a cool, experienced, tactical head to direct things in front of the back four. At 35, Michael Carrick might not have pace, but he remains a pass master and it would be no surprise if the veteran plays.
Liverpool is fourth in the Premier League, three ahead of United, which is sixth and chasing a sixth straight win in all competitions. The home side will have the logo “Seeing is Believing” on its shirts to mark sponsors Standard Chartered’s global initiative to tackle avoidable blindness, but Liverpool says the message has another meaning, too, given the way supporters believe Klopp is the man to lead the club to success.
“We are really looking forward to what will be a fantastic game at Anfield,” said Klopp. “Those Europa League games were really nice. Both games were intense and competitive. We were better in the first game at Anfield (when Liverpool won 2-0). We had a fantastic atmosphere and the players were inspired by that.
“It was my first time at Old Trafford for the second leg. Maybe people don’t like to hear it, but there was actually quite a good atmosphere there, too. It changed the game a little bit and it was real proof of what an atmosphere can do. United were on top, but we killed that atmosphere with Philippe Coutinho’s wonderful equalizing goal in the 45th minute. From then on it wasn’t that difficult any more.”
Coutinho now forms a devastating attack with Sadio Mane and Firmino. United will probably have Rashford, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lingard as their front line.
Predicting the winner is tricky, but it can be said with confidence the atmosphere will be white hot and the game will not be boring or free of controversy.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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