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Restoring an atmosphere, if not yet an aura, for Manchester United

MANCHESTER, England — In the last five minutes of a nerve-shredding 1-1 draw on Sunday, as his team swarmed forward and Liverpool seemed to tilt and teeter, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho got what he wanted.

He had asked his club's fans — so frequently accused of sitting on their hands, waiting to be entertained — to create a "special atmosphere" for the visit of Liverpool.

"My invitation is not to come to the theater," he said a few days before the arrival of Liverpool, United's fiercest, bitterest rival in the Premier League. "Come to play with us."

Demanding more of your fans is something like crossing the Rubicon. They pay substantial sums of money to support your team — their team — and sacrifice substantial amounts of time, too. They do not, as a rule, respond kindly to being told they are not meeting expectations.

Mourinho knows that well: In 2014, he tried the same move with Chelsea after a particularly quiet game at home against Queens Park Rangers. A few days later, at a Champions League game in Slovenia, the 642 Chelsea followers who had made the long journey spoke for thousands more when they informed Mourinho, on the touchline, that they did not take requests.

"We'll sing when we want" was one of the more genteel offerings that evening.

That Mourinho risked repeating the trick last week suggests that he knew that little separated the current incarnations of England's two most successful clubs, that every slight advantage had to be sought, any source of help called in.

For a while, it seemed as if the effort might backfire. With Liverpool leading, the home crowd at Old Trafford started to simmer with resentment. Much of the frustration seemed to focus on Paul Pogba, who was enduring the sort of afternoon that the world's most expensive player is apparently not permitted.

And then Zlatan Ibrahimovic equalized, and all of that acid, anxiety and discontent turned to belief and hope.

The stands seemed to shake with noise — guttural, heartfelt, desperate. It might not have led to a winning goal, but it left an impression.

"It was really loud when they scored the goal," said Juergen Klopp, the Liverpool manager. Mourinho had gotten what he wanted. Old Trafford had found its voice.

Atmosphere, though, should not be mistaken for aura. That is what has been missing from this stadium for three years, and what Mourinho has been expected to restore.

He knows that, of course. As he said a couple of days before this game, there is no such thing as an "intimidating" atmosphere in elite sports, no matter how loud, no matter how frenzied. The players are too single-minded, too experienced, for that.

There is, though, such a thing as an intimidating venue, a place that can overwhelm even the hardest heart and the coolest mind.

That is what Old Trafford used to be, when United — owned by the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, since 2005 —was in its pomp. Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes — managers themselves now and alumni of Sir Alex Ferguson's first great United team — use the same phrase to describe the sensation. "Teams," they have said, "were beaten in the tunnel."

The recollections of visiting players suggest that impression is not rooted in arrogance. Robbie Earle, who came here a number of times during his peripatetic playing career, confessed that his primary concern when facing United at its peak had been to "get out of here without a hiding."

"It was never acknowledged, but not many people would complain if they could walk away from Ferguson's Old Trafford having lost by one or two goals," he said.

It took Ferguson years — a decade, at least — to imbue this stadium with that aura. His successors needed just two, if that, to wash it away.

Under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, Old Trafford lost something. Teams no longer arrived desperate to keep the score to a minimum, or left happy if they had simply given a good account of themselves. They came not with hope that they might record a victory, but with belief that they could.

Mourinho is starting to undo that perception. United has had its blips this season — draws at home with Burnley and Stoke and West Ham, a painful loss to Manchester City — but since Mourinho's humiliating return to Chelsea in October, something seems to have clicked. United had won its past six games before Liverpool came to town, and had avoided defeat for 15.

The quality of performance varied, but United had rediscovered a knack for dispatching relative small fry with a minimum of fuss. This game seemed to serve as a genuine test of how far Mourinho's team had come. It ended, though, as proof of how far there is still to go.

Liverpool knows what it is like to lose an aura. For years, teams lost in the tunnel at Anfield, too, crumbling at the sight of that famous sign.

And then, 26 years ago or so, it went. The noise remained — though that, too, has been in abeyance for some time — but the effect was different. At times, the pressure seemed to inhibit the hosts and inspire the visitors.

Even now, with a towering new stand and a rabble-rousing manager, Anfield is not what it was. As much as neither team would appreciate the comparison, what Liverpool faced after the collapse of its empire remains the most fitting — if by no means perfect — parallel for the post-Ferguson United. And Liverpool's experience would suggest the magic, once banished, never returns, not quite.

Mourinho does not believe that. He cannot believe that. He is employed, specifically, to disprove it.

He remains some way from achieving it, though: Even with a starting 11 weakened by the absence of four key players, Liverpool did not show a flicker of fear here, even in those last five minutes, as the noise rumbled and echoed and crashed onto the pitch, as Mourinho got what he wanted.

Old Trafford had found its voice. That is the first step. The fans did what was asked of them. They brought the atmosphere. Now it is Mourinho's turn: to build a team so intimidating, so ruthless, that games are won and lost in the pregnant silence of the tunnel.

Restoring an atmosphere, if not yet an aura, for Manchester United 01/16/17 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2017 12:00am]
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