The Kop is vast, Liverpool are 2-0 up and Manchester United have a penalty. Liverpool’s goalscorer, Adam Morgan, has just goaded the away followers in the Anfield Road End by flashing five fingers. But Liverpool are down to 10 men.
United’s penalty taker, a lanky beanpole midfielder, shuffles towards the ball like a tentative skier sliding to a gradual halt, blanking out the Scouse arm-waving behind the goal and behind him, orchestrated by the scallywag Jon Flanagan.
His eyes are fixed on the goalkeeper. He reaches the ball and kicks thin air, sending the gullible goalkeeper to the right. The taker slots the ball to the left. Two-one? No, it is still 2-0.
Raheem Sterling admires his opponent’s gall but his teammates protest. The robotic referee, David Coote, signals a retake and flashes a yellow card with the flourish of a vacuum cleaner salesman. He then remembers it is the taker’s second caution and hurriedly reaches for the red card. Paul Pogba has been sent off.
Pogba was 17 and two days short of his 18th birthday when he first sampled the Anfield atmosphere with United’s Under-18s. Ron Atkinson once likened Anfield to Vietnam after United were greeted with tear gas in 1986 and faeces were tossed onto the away fans during the toxic FA Cup fifth round tie in 2006.
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Manchester United secured a vital 1-0 victory over Burnley on Tuesday night to go top of the Premier League.
Paul Pogba scored the decisive goal in a hard-fought contest at Turf Moor, meaning United are now three points clear of Liverpool — who they face this weekend at Anfield.
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Even in a largely sparse Anfield, the enmity between Liverpool and United has rarely been as febrile in the modern age as it was during that 2011 FA Youth Cup quarter-final. Pogba was the second of four dismissals, among them Conor Coady, as United recovered to triumph 3-2. Larnell Cole converted on the retake and Ravel Morrison taunted Kopites in front of the watching Sir Alex Ferguson.
Pogba has not exercised his Anfield hex since he first strode into the ground nearly a decade ago. Ineffectual as a playmaker in United’s spirited goalless draw in 2016, he was absent through injury the following year, an unused substitute in Jose Mourinho’s last stand in 2018 and unavailable again last year. Coote’s pedantry was a sliding doors moment.
Even on home territory, Pogba spurned a one-on-one and brainlessly conceded a penalty by dabbing at the ball in the January 2017 draw. It was announced two days prior to the fixture Pogba was to become the first footballer to have their own hashtag emoji. Pogba left himself open to ridicule and was; the electronic advertising hoardings featured the hashtag during his disasterclass and he trended for the wrong reasons.
Now it is for the right reasons. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is having to select his United XI days, sometimes weeks, in advance of the fixture’s date and Pogba’s starting role at Burnley, with Scott McTominay and Fred benched, suggested he was pencilled in to be a substitute at Liverpool. Not anymore.
In the absence of supporters, United had the Scottish growl of Darren Fletcher to provide their away-day soundtrack at Burnley and Pogba’s volley brought the United coach to his feet, his voice reverberating around the Jimmy Hargreaves stand that is usually housed by Burnley denizens.
Fletcher was a midfielder of limited talent but grabbed games – and sometimes opponents – by the lapels and maybe it is just a coincidence his appointment to the coaching staff has coincided with Pogba bossing games. United have to accommodate Pogba when he conducts attacks with such virtuosity as the early second-half breakaway at Burnley.
Pogba and Fletcher never shared the pitch for United but came up against each other at club and international level. Fletcher possessed a big-game prowess comparable with Mark Hughes and he is an erudite coach to coax such performances out of Pogba, whose impact against the elite would make for an ostentatious trailer, if not the full picture.
Solskjaer could revert to his trusted trio of Fred, McTominay and Bruno Fernandes, with Pogba positioned on the left, where he started against Manchester City and Wolves. Trent Alexander-Arnold has raised the bar for attacking right-backs but, defensively, is more suspect than the prime minister’s choice of location for a bike ride and Marcus Rashford rinsed him in United’s last win over Liverpool in 2018.
Anthony Martial didn’t on Alexander-Arnold’s full league debut the previous year and Mourinho was so frustrated Martial was dropped completely from the next two squads. Rashford struck the opener at Old Trafford last term amid Alexander-Arnold’s defensive doziness and he was especially egregious in Liverpool’s defeat at Southampton.
Pogba is unlikely to be on penalty duties this weekend and United have been awarded three spotkicks at Anfield in the Premier League era – all of them in front of their supporters at the Anfield Road End (Denis Irwin and Robin van Persie were successful, Wayne Rooney was not). Louis Saha was denied when hacked off his feet by Daniel Agger in 2007, although if the referee Martin Atkinson had been cured of his myopia United fans would have been denied the delirium John O’Shea’s winner.
It is possible United have not had a penalty at The Kop since 1953, when Roger Byrne struck in a 4-4 draw, a fixture so long ago Pathé may not have been present for it. Only Pogba, Cole and Sam Hewson, on target in the 2007 FA Youth Cup final first leg, have had the nerve to step up for United at that end in recent memory.
But this weekend The Kop will be sparse, rather than vast.