MANCHESTER: Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored an 84th-minute header as Manchester United prevented historic foes Liverpool from recapturing second place in the Premier League table in a 1-1 draw on Sunday.
Paul Pogba stood to be United’s fall guy at Old Trafford after conceding a soft first-half penalty for handball, which James Milner converted, only for Ibrahimovic to save his blushes.
Ibrahimovic’s 19th goal of the season extended United’s unbeaten league run to seven games, but after winning the previous six, momentum has been lost.
“When you’re losing and you score in the last part of the game, the team that concedes feels worse than the team that scores,” said United manager Jose Mourinho.
“But in the end we lost the points because we were playing for three. They’re happy with a point, so they go home happy.”
Mourinho’s side remain sixth, four points off the Champions League places, while Liverpool rose one place to third, seven points below leaders Chelsea and beneath Tottenham Hotspur on goal difference.
After draws against Sunderland and Plymouth Argyle and a defeat at Southampton, Liverpool have gone four games without victory at the start of a calendar year for the first time since 1993.
But with United five points below them, Jurgen Klopp’s men remain the more likely champions.
“A lot of people before the game would have thought we would get a knock today because United look like a rolling beetle and everything goes in their direction,” Klopp said.
“We know about our problems and situations, so seeing a performance like today was nice.”
An abdominal injury to Nathaniel Clyne saw Liverpool’s 18-year-old right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold given a full league debut and he had the onerous task of handling the livewire Anthony Martial.
Martial scored a memorable goal against Liverpool on his United debut last season and he fashioned the first opening with a deep cross for the leaping Ibrahimovic, who could only volley wide.
Ibrahimovic gave the visiting fans a heart-in-mouth moment when he chased down Dejan Lovren’s weak back-pass, with Simon Mignolet’s clearance striking him and looping onto the roof of the net.
United appeared to be taking control and in the 19th minute Henrikh Mkhitaryan bisected the Liverpool defence with a neatly judged pass for Pogba, only for the Frenchman to scuff wide with his left foot.
Liverpool’s play had been more conspicuous for misplaced passes than anything else, but errors from Phil Jones and Pogba enabled them to take the lead in the 27th minute.
Jones’s heavy touch allowed Roberto Firmino to rob him on the edge of the box, obliging Marcos Rojo to tidy up at the expense of a corner.
Pogba inexplicably leapt with his hands above his head as he defended Milner’s set-piece and the Liverpool number seven tucked the ensuing spot-kick past David de Gea for his sixth penalty of the season.
United twice threatened an equaliser before half-time, Ibrahimovic blasting a free-kick towards the bottom-left corner and Mkhitaryan taking aim from Ander Herrera’s pass, but Mignolet saved twice.
Mourinho took remedial action at the interval, sending on Wayne Rooney for his 450th league appearance and withdrawing Michael Carrick.
United spurned a great chance to equalise when, after robbing Alexander-Arnold on halfway, Martial sprinted into the box to meet Mkhitaryan’s low cross, only to miscue his attempt at a back-heel.
But with Carrick off, United’s back four was exposed to counter-attacks.
Divock Origi saw a shot deflected wide, a missed header by Jones allowed substitute Philippe Coutinho to slip in Firmino, obliging De Gea to block, and Georginio Wijnaldum headed Emre Can’s cross over.
It was left to Ibrahimovic to ride to United’s rescue, the Swede steering a fine header over Mignolet from Antonio Valencia’s cross after Marouane Fellaini’s header came back off the post.
The noise that Mourinho had called for after United’s mid-week League Cup semi-final first-leg win over Hull City duly arrived, but Liverpool withstood the late crescendo.