It was a gripping Premier League encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool as the two North-West giants were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
With three of the top 6 teams garnering comfortable victories early on during the weekend, there was a lot riding on the Old Trafford showdown between two English giants in Manchester United and Liverpool.
While Manchester City received an absolute spanking at the hands of Everton, United, in light of their recent form, were confident of avoiding similar treatment at the hands of Liverpool.
Unlike the Anfield tie early on in the season, there was more zip and frenzied nature to the football played at Manchester on Sunday as both sides looked keen on coming away with the three points on the night.
At one point it looked like James Milner’s first half penalty was enough for the Reds to secure a famous away victory. That was up until the usual suspect, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, once again shone when it mattered to secure a valuable point for the hosts.
The Hard Tackle discusses some key talking points from an enthralling North-West derby.
While the #Pogba emoji was flashing across all the advertisement hoardings at Old Trafford, the Frenchman was doing every bit to make a mockery of the endorsement with a poor showing in the game of games against Liverpool.
Pogba has slowly but steadily begun to pay off the faith Manchester United placed in him when they completed his world record £89 million transfer from Juventus in the summer of 2016.
His form off-late and his near telepathic connection with Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have certainly ruffled a few feathers at Merseyside in the build-up to the game.
But none of that was in evidence on Sunday as Liverpool players ensured Pogba wasn’t afforded the kind of space that would have made him virtually impossible to cope with.
Aside from shoddy passes and poor ball retention, Pogba also recklessly handled the ball inside his own box to gift Liverpool a penalty in the first half, which Milner duly converted.
His poor on-field showing not withstanding, the Frenchman could have possibly been sent off had the referee caught his ridiculous ‘choke-slam’ on Jordan Henderson during one of United’s corners.
There is no room for doubts now as to whether Zlatan will be able to cut it in the Premier League. For a man, at the age of 35, to come to physically and mentally the most taxing league in world football and casually hold a joint lead in the goal-scoring charts is no mean feat.
Ibrahimovic’s vital equaliser in the 84th minute helped Jose Mourinho’s team earn a crucial point, and throughout the game the Swede looked assured in possession and given more chances could have certainly made the most of them.
What’s even more remarkable is the Swede’s fitness levels given that he’s had to regularly feature in two games or even three games a week for United this season. With Sunday’s equalizer against Liverpool, Zlatan scored his 14th league goal of the campaign sitting joint top of the charts with Alexis Sanchez and Diego Costa.
He is the kind of player that could do wonders with the services of players like Mkhitaryan, Pogba and Martial and with his physical presence and passing range, he has the ability to set up a number of chances as well.
The Swede came in for some amount of criticism for his poor run of form in the month of October, but that seems a distant memory at the moment with him smashing the goals week-in and week-out for the Red Devils.
It wouldn’t be a far shot to say that he would be a crucial player in United’s hopes of finishing in the top 4 and if he continues his good scoring touch, there is no reason why that shouldn’t happen.
Simon Mignolet deserves high praise
To be able to take the spot-light in a game where David De Gea is in the opposing goal should speak volumes about your performance and that is exactly the case with Simon Mignolet.
Liverpool had more shots on goal but it was United who had the more telling chances on the night and if not for Mignolet, the Reds would have been looking back at a very different kind of result.
For all the criticism the Belgian has accrued in recent years for his poor showing in goal, it’s only fair he warrants acclaim and praise as well for a solid performance.
His saves off Zlatan’s free-kick, Rooney’s venomous shot and Henrikh Mkhitaryan throw light on a decent shot-stopping display from Mignolet. Moreover, he saved Lovren’s blushes when the defender’s ill-timed pass almost sent Zlatan through only for the Swede’s shot to balloon into the roof of the net after taking a deflection of the Belgian international.
The 29-year-old has been competing with Loris Karius for the goalkeeping role in the side and having sat out the last few encounters, Mignolet has sent out a strong statement of intent with his Old Trafford show.
Top 4 race is on
With Everton whipping Manchester City at Goodison, the top four race has got an interesting edge to it with Tottenham and Manchester United back in the reckoning owing to their decent run off-late.
Any clash between the top 6 sides in the following weeks will be followed with much interest by the rest of the teams given the impact it could have on the title race. That said, next week’s showdown between Manchester City and Tottenham at the Etihad should be a mighty interesting watch.
City may be a side lacking in confidence and morale but Guardiola’s a manager who knows how to get the best out of his players and the competitive Premier League eco-system will test that to the pulp.
A month ago Mourinho’s side looked far off the top 4 spots and a title challenge was out of question. A 10-match unbeaten streak later, things look a little different.
While they are still out of the reckoning for the Premier League title, they are certainly in with a realistic chance of top 4 qualification as they sit only 4 points behind Arsenal in their customary fourth spot.
Liverpool will also be entertaining each of the Top 6 sides in the next few weeks and it’ll be fair to say, we’ll have a clearer picture of the title challenge by the time March comes calling.