Heart Of Football

Fear not in Klopp's book as high-flying United await

A reporter used a four-letter word at Jurgen Klopp's press conference ahead of today's Manchester United versus Liverpool league game at Old Trafford.

"Fear?" the Liverpool manager asked rhetorically. "What could I fear? At this moment, anything is possible. It could be that United are not at their best level on Sunday, just nobody knows about it yet."

You gained some idea of the German manager's personality in that response. He spoke of going to Old Trafford "for a result, like always".

He spoke too of his players going to play with anger - "a kind of greed to fix something" after Liverpool's poor performance in losing at Southampton in the League Cup on Wednesday.

And he wouldn't let go of the question, the foreign concept to him that you would go anywhere on earth, most especially not as a Liverpool manager or player to United where the intense rivalry has so far lasted 121 years.

He said he woke up on Friday, feeling excited. "Why was I feeling so good? Because it's only two days to Old Trafford. Give me 11 players, and we will go there competitive."

Mourinho's history with Chelsea against Liverpool is littered with memories of contrived defending, and often with stolen victories once the negativity has stifled the opponents to death.

United v Liverpool. Jose Mourinho v Klopp. Paul Pogba now bestriding the Premier League as he should against Jordan Henderson who, probably, will defy pain in his injured heel to play against United, in Manchester.

"Of course, you don't fear stuff," Klopp reiterated.

The dog with a bone has nothing on top managers, coaches, players when history fuels one of the great contests in football.

"I've had enough time in the game to realise what happens," Klopp continued. "At this moment I'm 100 per cent positive, absolutely looking forward to the game.

"I've had so many defeats in my life, especially as a player - as a manager, too - that I really know defeat is not the problem. Your reaction to it is the problem. We've now had four days to react from a really bad game on our side by playing in a very important game. I love it.

"That's how football should be - you can react immediately. So let's think about this and not what could happen if we can't do it."

The journalists, of course, were looking for an angle. They pointed out that United look a transformed team since the teams last met, at Anfield, back in October.

True, United's ball is rolling now, although if you analyse the nine successive wins in league and Cups, the one really impressive result was against Tottenham.

The rest - Zorya Luhansk, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, West Ham, Reading and Hull - might almost have been tailor-made to help United regain their pomp.

But Klopp himself recognises the huge improvement in United's team. He names one player in particular, Henrik Mkhitaryan, whose technical quality has improved Mourinho's side, just as it did when Klopp signed the Armenian for Borussia Dortmund back in 2013.

"Sure, they are better now," Klopp said. "Henrik is one example because of his outstanding quality, and because they have spent more time together than that night in October."

That night, billed as Red Monday, turned into Dead Monday. United parked the bus at Anfield, to use Mourinho's famous term describing opponents who do not go out to play, but to stop greater rivals from playing.

There, if you like, is the prime example of fear in football. A side like the Red Devils under a manager like Mourinho simply not daring to take on the Reds with anything other than massed defence.

Mourinho's history with Chelsea against Liverpool is littered with memories of contrived defending, and often with stolen victories once the negativity has stifled the opponents to death.

Klopp, with his precise command of English, would not use such a term. "It's a very, very big game," he said, "but, OK, in the end it's only football."

Football, yes, but as Pogba, another whose command of the language is impressive, said on Friday, it's "a game with enormous history".

Back in October, Pogba struggled to convince many that he was worth anywhere close to the world record £89 million (S$155 million) fee United paid to Juventus to get the young Frenchman back after allowing him to go during Alex Ferguson's time as manager.

Even now, even at 23 and 1.91m tall, Pogba looks up to an elder, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. "Outside the pitch, he's a joker," Pogba said of his team-mate. "On it, he's a leader, a father or I better say a big brother."

Pogba laughed. Ibrahimovic stands above even him, at 1.95m, and, though the Swede was almost anonymous in the game at Anfield, his magical mix of goals, goals, goals has since removed any doubts that, at 35, he came to the Premier League too old.

With typical Ibrahimovic bravado, he says he has "conquered" England in three months. With 12 goals in 12 games, at times with force showing his taekwondo skills, he certainly hasn't looked too old to belong at Old Trafford.

Indeed, Ryan Giggs, who had played there for 21 years, joined in the description of Ibrahimovic as being on par with the charisma and the match-winning potency that Eric Cantona once brought to the place.

Ibrahimovic's presence makes Wayne Rooney wait for opportunities to get the goal the United captain needs to pass Bobby Charlton's all-time United scoring feat. They are all square on 249 career goals, and Rooney might well start on the bench again this evening.

But, as the Premier League settles down after the frenzy of Christmas and New Year, both the Reds have a hole in their line-ups today, caused by another fact of life.

Sadio Mane, whose flair has added much to Liverpool this season, is away now with his national side for as long as Senegal stay in the Africa Cup of Nations. Even with Philippe Coutinho easing his way back after injury, the absence of Mane's pace blunts Liverpool.

United, though, also lose central defender Eric Bailly, whose nation, Ivory Coast, expect to go all the way to the final in Gabon on Feb 5.

The Premier League knowingly pays a price for taking its players from every region of the global game.

Sometimes the countries call them home. The big clubs just have to live with that - with no fear.

MAN UNITED V LIVERPOOL

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Fear not in Klopp's book as high-flying United await'. Print Edition | Subscribe