Marcus Rashford sums up the current confusion at Manchester United. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Marcus Rashford sums up the current confusion at Manchester United. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Reds aim to inflict more misery on crumbling rivals

THERE are no inter-club trophies in English football - but if there were, Manchester United and Liverpool would have a long history of silverware in the Schadenfreude Cup.

The enmity stretches beyond the football pitch and back in time more than a 100 years to the burgeoning industrial Britain, when the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal diverted trade away from Liverpool, thereby depriving the once thriving port of its main economy.

All that money bypassed Merseyside and floated downstream to Trafford Park, where United would eventually construct the base of their empire.

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As trade declined, a century's worth of social and economic competition become focused on the two cities' biggest weapons - their football teams.

From United's success in the 1960s, Liverpool's supremacy in the '70s and '80s, and then the reign of Alex Ferguson through the '90s and 2000s, the clubs' rivalry has swung like a pendulum for more than half a century of ruling English football.

It was during Liverpool's late 20th century supremacy, as United waited 26 years between league titles, that the on-field bitterness was truly cemented.

Even as the Reds won everything on offer over a 20-year period, the Red Devils did little on the field but still built the image of glamour that is integral to the club's identity today.

Solskjaer still represents United’s golden era.
Solskjaer still represents United’s golden era.

But the pendulum swung again in the early '90s. After five years of fighting for survival, Alex Ferguson's oft-repeated plot to "knock Liverpool of their perch" came to pass just as Liverpool's decline truly set in, at the beginning of the media-crazed, money shower that is the Premier League.

Invoking the great Scot's list of achievements isn't required but for Liverpool fans who had spent decades lording it over their enemies, it couldn't have been any worse. For as long as they had been on top, now they had to live in the shadow of their rivals.

So if anyone should appreciate that empires don't last forever, it is Red fans, whose now 31-year wait for that elusive title appears to be part of every conversation regarding the club.

After decades of frustration and near misses, surely Kopites should have some sympathy for the huge cracks that have riven Old Trafford?

Forget it. This is as good as schadenfreude gets. The on-field and financial transformation of Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp and the club's American owners throws United's managerial woes and profit-sucking ownership concerns into sharp focus.

Psychologists have identified a three-part to schadenfreude, which literally mans "harm-joy" in German, one of which is aggression-based whereby one group's failure represents a validation of another group's identity. Sound familiar?

Even the two stadiums are physical representations of the contrasting fortunes; as Liverpool plan further improvement and redevelopment of Anfield, Old Trafford is slowly falling into disrepair. It remains the competition's biggest ground by far but is in desperate need of modernisation.

James Milner scores in front of Anfield’s new Main Stand. Photo: AP Photo/Jon Super
James Milner scores in front of Anfield’s new Main Stand. Photo: AP Photo/Jon Super

Watching your team win a competition is a rare and peculiar experience; wildly celebrating as a group of people you've probably never met achieve something you have nothing to do with.

But it's all about that emotional investment over the years.

The flip side of that desire is envy at others' high status and achievements; when they fail, empathy goes out the window for a malicious glee that sports fans know so well.

Liverpool's rivalry with Everton and United's with City both pale in comparison to the animosity between the two most successful clubs, revealing it is not proximity that fuels the envy but the achievements of the other.

Solskjaer knows as well as anyone what this fixture means.
Solskjaer knows as well as anyone what this fixture means.

The refereeing error that dominated reviews of the NRL grand final garnered only sympathy for Canberra - but how would the public mood have been if the Sydney Roosters had been on the receiving end? It not hard to see how many rugby league fans would have been delighted had it happened to the Tricolours.

And so Liverpool travel to Old Trafford this weekend, not quite with the crown back on their head but certainly with one hand on the throne.

For the travelling fans who have endured decades of taunts from Old Trafford, this particularly vintage of schadenfreude will be rich and sweet, perhaps made even more so knowing that it could get even better at season's end if Klopp's team can maintain their imperious form.

For the home fans, well, is there a German word or other that encompasses the opposite of schadenfreude - feeling misery at another's joy?

The only thing that could counter it is if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can conjure a spirit of frenzied commitment to inflict a first defeat of the season on Liverpool. Perhaps even a draw, like last season's drab stalemate, would salve a little of the pain.

United showed in their opening-day win over Chelsea that they have it in them, somewhere deep down, and Liverpool have been troubled by teams that have the capacity to hit them on the break.

Solskjaer's hope will to soak up Liverpool's possession and exploit the Reds' high defensive line through the likes of Marcus Rashford and Daniel James. But with Paul Pogba injured and goalkeeper David De Gea in serious doubt, the mood Old Trafford will be fearful.

The main problem is United's lack of goals - just nine in eight games; less than half of Liverpool's tally already.

And Solskjaer's team don't appear to have the teeth to take the ball off the Reds, having won the least tackles and interceptions in the league, notably only winning the ball in the attacking third just 27 times compared to Liverpool's 57.

Given Liverpool's confidence, athleticism and relentless pressing, Old Trafford must steel itself for what appears from the stats to be a hopeless mismatch, designed to inflict maximum misery on those fans who thought their time in the sun would never end.

But Sir Alex is gone, so are David, Louis and Jose and the distant optimism they offer.

Solskjaer has no history of resurrecting a club, especially one as titanic as this.

The United board's patience with this form cannot last long but what is their choice? They must either persevere with Solskjaer, let him rebuild the playing squad from the ground up and accept that this will take time and money.

Or they sack their fourth manager in six years to hire another blow-in who will almost certainly ask for yet more money to buy more players.

How much time will Solskjaer be given? Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
How much time will Solskjaer be given? Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Whatever happens this weekend, the problems at United are systemic and the rot has been allowed to fester to the point where it would take years and probably billions of dollars to challenge for the title. Sack and spend big or trust and hope for development.

It was defeat to Liverpool that ended Jose Mourinho's time at Old Trafford; to finish another United manager, especially a favourite son like Solskjaer, would just add to the sweetness of that malicious glee.

But don't be sad. Every fan has been there, and it always comes around again. Even after hundreds of years, schadenfreude is a cup we all drink from.