Once more Jose Mourinho was determined not to be the clown at the circus.
This time he custard-pied Chelsea, his former club and champions-elect. Now, with their lead at the top over Tottenham reduced to four points with six matches to play, let the carnival begin.
Mourinho cannot win the Premier League title, not this season – just as he could not three years ago when his Chelsea team arrived at Liverpool. Like United now, they were between vital European matches, complaining about fatigue and fixture congestion, apparently fielding a weakened team – and won.
And by the same scoreline. Mourinho was even wearing a gilet that day, and was again sporting one here, and again he tapped the club crest at the final whistle.
At Anfield, Mourinho said he was determined not to be the “clowns” in “their [Liverpool’s] circus”, and this performance had the same kind of edgy, passionate feel to it, revved up by the fact that he was sacked by Chelsea and that they had angered him with their celebrations in the humiliating 4-0 league win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. They also knocked United out of the FA Cup.
Unsurprisingly, Mourinho returned to that game. “I had the feeling before that match at Stamford Bridge that we would be playing against Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-finals,” he said, a pointed reference to the referee at Stamford Bridge, Michael Oliver.
That day Ander Herrera was sent off by Oliver for a second bookable offence, fouling Eden Hazard. Here, again, the midfielder was at the centre of things. He was detailed to man-mark Hazard – and did so superbly – but also managed to claim an assist and a goal himself in an outstanding performance.
For their manager Antonio Conte this was a troubling display. He lost goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to injury and then Marcos Alonso to illness in the warm-up, but that did not explain how flat and overwhelmed his team were.
Mourinho had complained about tiredness but it was Chelsea who looked jaded – who looked, in fact, like a favourite and front-runner desperately straining for the finish line. There are 18 points to be won. They need to win five of those games to be mathematically certain, if Spurs keep winning, but suddenly it is no longer a procession. As recently as March 18 Chelsea were 13 points clear.
Suddenly there is that seed of doubt. Suddenly, also, pressure on Spurs, who have played superbly to stay in touch – and, fascinatingly, the sides meet on Saturday in the semi-final Mourinho alluded to. The victor of that may just lay a psychological blow on the other.
There was also pressure on United and Mourinho. He needed this performance, the best he has produced so far as United manager, not just to stay in touch with the top four but also to show he has the ability to out-tactic a vibrant coach like Conte. The fire still burns for Mourinho.
Mourinho rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and there was a brilliant response from Marcus Rashford, who along with Jesse Lingard had the pace and movement to trouble Chelsea – and that was exposed in the seventh minute.
But there was a clear handball in the build-up, despite Herrera’s weak argument afterwards that it was not deliberate, as he intercepted Nemanja Matic’s pass with an outstretched arm. After that his pass was incisive as he slid the ball past David Luiz with Rashford running on and cutting his shot back across Asmir Begovic and into the net.
Old Trafford erupted. The earliness of the goal – the quickest United had scored this season – fuelled belief, while Eric Bailly and, in particular, Marcos Rojo, took the fight to Diego Costa. Herrera remained shackled to Hazard and Chelsea were knocked out of their stride.
Not once did United relent. Mourinho coaxed, cajoled and ordered. He demanded more and more energy and effort, while Conte looked curiously inactive, a bit like his team, wearing and then disposing of a baseball cap to accompany his suit. His attire jarred, just as his players did on the pitch.
Nothing was happening for them. Hazard could not get on the ball; Costa was losing the battle; Matic was off the pace and N’Golo Kanté could not take control. Further back Chelsea were unsettled, and that was summed up by United’s second goal.
It came early in the second half and gave them an iron grip – which Mourinho would demand was never loosened – with Ashley Young’s cross cut out by Luiz, only for the ball to be casually lost by Kanté. Young seized on to it to work his way into the penalty area. He was challenged by Kurt Zouma and the ball was poked to Herrera, whose shot ricocheted up off Kanté to spin beyond Begovic. Meanwhile, bizarrely, Gary Cahill had taken time out to help Lingard up off the turf as play continued.
But this was a performance of champions.