“We chased the game with more enthusiasm than guile.”
Manchester United and Liverpool have not played each other for a year. In their last encounter, in January 2020, Liverpool saw off United 2-0 at Anfield en route to winning their first league title in 30 years.
Now they will face each other twice in the space of a week. On Sunday, United – fresh from ascending to the top of the table for the first time in 40 months – travel to Anfield for what is inarguably the biggest game of the season (so far, anyway).
That will be quickly followed by an FA Cup fourth-round clash at Old Trafford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United have attracted plenty of positive reviews for the manner in which they have taken control of the title race after crashing out of the Champions League group stages.
However, while Solskjaer has United playing attractive football once again, the Norwegian’s legacy will ultimately be measured by his ability to return silverware to Old Trafford.
It has been a painful quest up to this point with Solskjaer having lost all four semi-finals as United boss, the most recent of which was a dismal 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup.
The quickfire double against Liverpool will be monumental in shaping the rest of United’s season. Win both and they have a realistic chance of landing at least one trophy. Lose both, however, and the sky over Old Trafford will suddenly look a lot darker.
United v Liverpool in 1999.
Of course, Solskjaer is attempting to emulate Alex Ferguson, his great mentor. When Ferguson took over as United boss in 1986, Liverpool were unquestionably English football’s dominant force having won six titles in eight years.
However, throughout the 1990s, Ferguson tipped the balance in United’s favour.
By the time 1999 arrived, Arsenal were United’s main rivals with Arsene Wenger’s Gunners having clinched the Double in 1997/98.
’99 would turn out to be the greatest year in United’s history and the momentum they gained during January proved crucial.
After beating Middlesbrough in the FA Cup third round, United scored 10 times in two league games as they crushed West Ham and Leicester City in merciless fashion.
A 6-2 win over Leicester at Filbert Street set United up perfectly for an FA Cup meeting with Liverpool.
Earlier in the season, Fergie’s side ran out 2-0 winners in the league at Old Trafford, with Denis Irwin and Paul Scholes scoring.
The cup game at home, however, got off to a disastrous start when Michael Owen’s header put Liverpool in the driving seat after just three minutes.
That early strike from Owen left United chasing the game, and while they were one of the best teams in such a situation, Ferguson was not overly enamoured with how his team were playing in the first half.
How Ferguson changed the game
“We chased the game with more enthusiasm than guile and in my analysis at the interval I stressed that the opposition were forcing us to play in to [Dwight] Yorke while deploying plenty of bodies to smother his threat,” wrote Ferguson in his autobiography Managing My Life.
“We had to spread our play and oblige Jamie Redknapp and Paul Ince to come out of the central areas.
“We had to forget about using our strikers until we got into the Liverpool penalty box.
“When we applied those tactics in the second half, their centre-midfield players had to do a lot of running and, with about fifteen minutes to go, Ince had to come off. He was either injured or exhausted.”
While United took control of the match, Liverpool proved a tough nut to crack. Roy Keane twice struck the woodwork as United pressed for a leveller.
Then, with two minutes of normal time remaining, David Beckham found Andy Cole with a free-kick. Cole headed across to Yorke, who tapped home for the equaliser.
Most United fans would have settled for a replay, but Solskjaer had other ideas.
“A long ball by Jaap Stam was chased down by Paul Scholes, creating a glimpse of an opening for Solskjaer.
“The amazing quickness of the Norwegian’s reactions did the rest, and Liverpool’s Cup dreams were dead.
“We had witnessed a demonstration of the morale that was to be every bit as vital as rich skill in the five months that lay ahead of United.”
That last-gasp win over Liverpool proved the launchpad as United went on to win the Treble. Solskjaer was one of the architects in that famous win over Liverpool.
More than two decades on, he hopes to leave United’s rivals in the dust once again as he searches for his first trophy as United boss.