Jürgen Klopp does a great line in deadpan humour. Asked, rather irritatingly, if he was aware of the significance of Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday he replied: “Of course. It’s the only game we have at the weekend.”
The Liverpool manager was only half joking. While Ole Gunnar Solskjær is probably right in stating that for once Manchester really will be united behind the home team, Klopp is keen to play down the idea this match is key to the title race, one of the last real obstacles Liverpool face as they attempt to open a gap on Manchester City and stay ahead for the rest of the season.
“Would we like to win the game and go three points in front of City, of course we would,” Klopp said. “Would a victory over United be worth more than three points? No, because we still have to play Tottenham and Chelsea and other difficult teams before the end of the season. We actually have three big games this week and United is only one. After that we play Watford, who are a really good side and would be in the top six if they could be a little more consistent, then Everton away. They will be approaching the game like a World Cup final after we won at Anfield with a goal in the 96th minute.
“If you are where we are, at or near the top of the table and going for the title, every single game is important. United look in great shape, Solskjær has put them back on track and if we can go there and win it would be a tremendous result, but the three points would not be more significant than any others we might collect. If we can stay strong until the end of the season everything will be fine. We cannot allow ourselves to place too much importance on one result.”
At the other end of the East Lancs Road, Solskjær is under no obligation to be anything like as sensible. Back in Norway last season, the present United manager tweeted a picture of Marcus Rashford’s shirt after he scored the winner against Liverpool at Old Trafford. “I’ve only sent about fix or six tweets ever but that was one of them,” Solskjær said. “Liverpool at Old Trafford is always the first game you look for on the fixture list. That’s the same every year but this feels even bigger because Liverpool are going for the title with City. I think the whole of Manchester will be supporting us but we won’t be trying to do anyone any favours except ourselves.”
Being Norwegian, Solskjær naturally knows lots of Liverpool fans. “There are loads back home and every year has been going to be their year until it gets to October and then it’s maybe next year,” he said. “But this year they are in the race, no question, and it looks like it’s going to be an exciting finish. We know their strengths, we know they will wait for our mistakes and try to counterattack but we will still try to dominate the game, because to drop back would be to invite them to take the initiative.”
Just like everyone else, Solskjær is aware Liverpool have not won the title in 29 years, though rather than indulge in a spot of Mancunian gloating at his rivals’ expense the caretaker took the opportunity instead to point out United have now been six years in the wilderness.
“This is a difficult league to win, probably the toughest there is,” Solskjær said. “I’m sure Liverpool do feel under more pressure each season that goes by but we have to remember we’ve not won a title for a few years either. We need to get back to being involved, I wouldn’t like to see this club end up just being happy to be among the top four.”
That is precisely Solskjær’s aim this time round, though this has been yet another transitional season, albeit one that has finally seen United take steps in the right direction. It is not yet clear whether Solskjær will be part of the long-term future, though he seems to know his breezy can-do attitude is going down well.
“If you aim too low and reach your targets it can be dangerous,” he warned. “It is better for a club like this to aim high and sometimes miss.”