When giants joust, sport’s tectonic plates can shift. On the occasions that true greats collide in the same era, a wide-eyed world feels the tremor. Think Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe, Palmer-Nicklaus, Prost-Senna, Federer-Nadal.
Liverpool-Manchester United? Sadly, it’s rarely been a clash of titans. As every fan knows, the halcyon days of English football’s most bitter rivals seldom coincide.
Football is different anyway as individual talents are subsumed by the collective. And like empires, when one club rules, the other enters what is politely known as a rebuilding phase.
Which is why current talk of a United renaissance might seem premature if it wasn’t for there being a bit of substance to it.
Forever, it seems to have been either one or the other. After winning the league in 1947, Liverpool slipped into the old second division at the advent of the Busby Babes.
A year after Munich, Shankly arrived at Liverpool but United were first to win the European Cup.
Then it was the Devils’ turn for the drop and Liverpool, now under Bob Paisley and finally Joe Fagan, were European champions four times in eight years.
After two decades, that lofty ‘perch’ was claimed by Lord Ferg who seemed to rule for a similar geological age.
And by the time Liverpool finally roared out of the wilderness in a Klopp customised Mercedes, United’s beat-up Proton had already spluttered to the hard shoulder.
Wrong managers at the wrong time, wrong players for the wrong price. Their signings have been scattergun and mostly clueless, their direction all over the place; worst of all, their swagger has been kept in a straitjacket.
What hurt United fans most about their fall from grace was the way they were playing. Famous for being swashbuckling even in defeat, under Messrs. Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho, their ‘swash’ was well and truly buckled.
And the Stretford End’s ‘Attack, attack, attack’ had become an increasingly plaintive cry.
But the gulf with an ascendant Liverpool also grated. In January, just after Klopp’s men had added the world club cup to their European crown, they were linked with Kylian Mbappe.
The French wonderboy said he’d love to play under the German boss. Nothing came of it but United listened enviously: they were chasing Glen Murray, Josh King and Odion Idalgo.
Idalgo has been a success, to be fair, but later that month, a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool could have been five or six. For 10 minutes United didn’t touch the ball in the home half. Anfield roared: “We’re gonna win the league.” United only had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
A lightweight manager out of his depth versus Klopp, the meister of all he surveys – or so it appeared. The ‘baby-faced assassin’ was in too deep at Cardiff, let alone Old Trafford, but after putting the smile back on the club’s face as a stopgap, got the benefit of an outrageous handball decision to knock out PSG.
At that, Ed Woodward handed him a three-year contract. Like Napoleon, United’s head honcho likes his generals to be lucky. So, the temp became permanent – and United were stuck with him.
Almost immediately, the luck started to run out. United couldn’t put a purposeful pass together and even David de Gea, their player of the past decade, couldn’t catch a cold. They looked destined to tread the weary path of Thursday night European football for some time.
Fans wanted Mauricio Pochettino, but Woodward stuck with the Norwegian. Missing out on compatriot Erling Braut Haaland, the hottest property in world football, was seen as a major failure.
Meanwhile, Liverpool were running away with the league and seemingly could do no wrong.
In the transfer window, though, if United were looking at strikers past their use-by date, they managed to find a playmaker at his peak.
Portuguese man o’ war Bruno Fernandes turned into not just the signing of the season but the ‘the new Cantona’ for his transformative effect.
A feisty creator with goals in him, he is making United tick – linking the disparate parts and even getting a rumble out of the long-dormant Paul Pogba.
With Fernandes running the show, United’s front three have now scored more goals than their celebrated Liverpool counterparts.
Besides bringing a smile, Solskjaer’s brief was to encourage homegrown talent and here he’s nurtured another gem.
Mason Greenwood, 18, is the most lethal young English striker since a certain Michael Owen, while Anthony Martial is rediscovering the touch that made him the world’s most expensive teenager five unconvincing years ago.
They are far from the finished article but there has been a discernible improvement.
They’re unbeaten in 15 games and have a genuine chance of securing a Champions League place.
And if Cantona was the godfather of the Class of 92, Fernandes is the conductor of the current crop.
No one is saying he’ll have quite the same mesmeric influence, but he’s shown what one crucial man can do.
Whether Solskjaer can duke it out with the grand master tacticians Klopp and Pep Guardiola is also open to doubt.
United also need to shore up a sometimes-shaky defence and sort out Pogba’s future once and for all.
If they manage to do all that while Klopp still has Liverpool riding high, we might finally get to witness a true clash of heavyweight equals worthy of the hype.
The biggest fan diasporas in world football have been waiting a long time.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.