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Man Utd finally won a 'cup final'... while Liverpool look understandably tired

Published on: 25 January 2021

There are Cup Finals and cup finals in football. Cup Finals, capital C capital F, are finite and get played at vast arenas, with much fanfare and a trophy at the end; cup finals, lower case and metaphorical, are different.

A cup final can involve two teams in the bottom four come April; or a manager who is without a win in 10 games.

Manchester United have played two cup finals already this season, and lost them both. The first was away to RB Leipzig in the last Champions League group game, needing a draw to progress. United went 3-0 down within 69 minutes, and lost.

The second was versus Manchester City in the Carabao Cup: a home match against local rivals with a place at Wembley at stake. United were never in it and City will now play Tottenham for the prize.

This, a winner-takes-all game at home to Liverpool, was United’s third cup final of the campaign — and the first to end in victory.

It is a significant event, because with United top of the league and the title race poised as delicately as at any time in recent memory, it will be all cup finals from here.

Sheffield United at home on Wednesday: cup final. Manchester United have got to claim three points because all of their rivals will expect to in this fixture. Arsenal away on Saturday: cup final. Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Leicester have all beaten Arsenal this season. United can’t afford to drop another three points to a midtable club.

So no wonder Ole Gunnar Solskjaer disappeared down the tunnel on Sunday with a cheeky wink. United may be the first team to concede two goals or more to Liverpool since before Christmas — unless we count Aston Villa’s youth XI — but the way they dealt with that challenge was evidence of blossoming confidence.

United went behind, as usual but pulled back to lead and took the game and a berth in the last 16 with a stunning free-kick from Bruno Fernandes.

Since making his debut against Wolves on February 1 last year, Fernandes has scored more goals than any other Premier League player: 28.

Sunday brought to an end his longest run of games for United without scoring: four. If this is to be United’s first title since the Ferguson era, the recruitment of Fernandes will be deemed as important as Virgil van Dijk’s was to Liverpool.

And while it would be unhealthy for Van Dijk’s extended injury absence to be advanced as mitigation every time Liverpool fall short, Sunday was one of those games when the hole in the heart of Jurgen Klopp’s defence was only too apparent.

Rhys Williams missed his kick to allow United’s second and Fabinho got sucked into giving away the free-kick that led to the winner.

No player is infallible, of course, but one imagines the errors that have led to Liverpool’s last two defeats — Fabinho contributed to the panic that resulted in Burnley’s penalty, too — might not have happened with Van Dijk’s calming influence.

We will soon see Leicester in the Premier League without Jamie Vardy, Manchester City minus Kevin De Bruyne. Were Fernandes to suffer a mishap, could United’s form be sustained?

Undoubtedly, as every triumph and reverse grows in significance so too will the lack of Van Dijk.

Yet that is not the only reason Liverpool are struggling right now. This is a team that have completed feats of endurance in the past three seasons.

An appearance in a Champions League final, a Champions League victory in a season coupled with one defeat in 38 Premier League matches, the fastest title win in the history of English football.

Is it really logical that they could go another year, while missing key players, and not be affected?

In 2013 and 2014, England played back-to-back Ashes Test series. There were five Tests in England, followed by five in Australia. It was too much. The intensity, the physical and mental pressure, it took a dramatic toll.

England lost the second series 5-0. Jonathan Trott flew home early suffering a stress-related condition; Graeme Swann retired from Test cricket mid-tour; Kevin Pietersen did not play for England again; Andy Flower was removed as coach.

Liverpool are nowhere near that level of crisis yet. In fact, Sunday’s performance was one of their best of late — and at least they’ve started scoring again — but contrary to what the Adidas campaign slogan says impossible isn’t nothing.

And it would be impossible for Liverpool to just go on and on, to run Manchester City to the last day in 2019, to set a pace no rival could live with the following season, to reach consecutive Champions League finals, to fly to Qatar and be crowned the world champion club, without the day coming when a little voice whispered: now breathe.

At that point, no amount of talk about those mentality monsters or Klopp’s refrain ‘our identity is intensity’ can dig a way out of the hole. Not right now, anyway. There may come a time when their energy level returns and it may be this season.

Liverpool still have great players — yet so did England in Australia. Sometimes they just need to recharge. The team of Klopp (left) look tired, at times, and stretched. It is understandable.

United, by contrast, seem inspired by the thrill of the chase. Paul Pogba appears driven by the challenge of this season. With pace wide and Edinson Cavani through the middle, Solskjaer has hit on a strategy that is a throwback to Ferguson’s title winners.

Some of the football, the passing, the cavalier nature of the moves, was quite outstanding. And, as is becoming increasingly common, United found a way to win, despite initial adversity.

No trophy, not yet, but make no mistake this was a cup final. As Solskjaer will recall, once you get started, winning them becomes quite the habit.


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