In an exclusive interview with Goal, the ex-Reds defender looks ahead to Sunday’s top-of-the-table Premier League clash at Anfield
John Arne Riise loves the build-up to Liverpool-Manchester United fixtures – and with good reason.
“My social media goes crazy!” he laughs. “All I get is videos of that goal, that goal, that goal.”
Ah yes, THAT goal.
It is, incredibly, coming up to 20 years since Riise announced himself in England, and in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.
United were the champions, English football’s dominant force under Sir Alex Ferguson. It was the team of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron.
Riise was the newcomer, the unknown Norwegian signed from Monaco a couple of months earlier. We’d seen flashes of what he could do, but when he let fly with his left foot at the Anfield Road End that November afternoon, nothing would ever be the same for him again.
“It changed my life, never mind my career!” Riise tells Goal now, almost two decades after his free-kick flew past Fabian Barthez, crashing home via the underside of the crossbar.
“I’d scored before then, against Newcastle, Everton, Bayern Munich, but that goal opened the door for me with the fans. It got me into their hearts. It got me a song!
“It gave me so much confidence, so much belief that I was good enough to play at that level. When you come from a small town in Norway, you never know how good you are compared to everybody else. That goal convinced me that I belonged.”
Riise, of course, would go on to achieve great success on Merseyside. A Champions Leaguewinner in 2005 and an FA Cup winner a year later, he would make 348 appearances for the Reds under Rafa Benitez and the late Gerard Houllier.
Now 40, Riise is embarking on a coaching career. He manages IL Flint, a third division club in Norway, and will soon complete his UEFA A License. “After that, it’s the Pro License, which I hope will take maybe 12-18 months,” he says.
Liverpool, of course, are still in his heart. He will watch Sunday’s game against United with interest. He is backing his former club to win, naturally, but he can’t help but admire the work of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his former colleague with the Norwegian national team.
“People thought he was done,” Riise says. “I was probably one of them, to be honest!
“When they lost 6-1 to Spurs [in October], I was thinking he wasn’t going to last much longer, but here they are, top of the league. You have to give credit to them, and to him.”
Riise says he still exchanges “the occasional text” with Solskjaer, and speaks glowingly about his old team-mate’s mentality.
“Ole is a guy who believes in himself, 100 per cent,” he says. “He doesn’t get affected by all the stuff around. He just focuses on what he’s doing, on working hard, and it’s worked out so far for him.
“I want to see him do well, I can say that. The person is more important than the club, for me. He’s a hero in Norway and he always will be. Nobody has a bad word to say about him.
“There are two clubs as far as Norwegians are concerned, Liverpool and Man United, and he’s manager of one of them and doing well. He’s loved.
“He was a big inspiration for me. You always watch people from your country, and Solskjaer was doing it at the highest level possible. He didn’t start every game, but he always scored goals, he always won trophies. His success was huge.
“He showed every young player in Norway that it was possible. He came from a small town, and he went all the way to Man United. When you watch him, you can’t help but dream.”
Solskjaer’s United, of course, arrive on Merseyside in good form – results-wise, at least. They have won nine of their last 11 in the league, and can move six points clear of Liverpool with a win.
“I still think Liverpool is the better team,” says Riise, “but I expect a tough game on Sunday, no doubt.
“I am not scared, but the attack of Manchester United is freaking dangerous when it comes to counterattacks! They’re so pacy and powerful, and they break so quickly.
“And when you miss someone like Van Dijk, who controls that side of the game, it definitely increases the risk.
“That’s the only way I can see United beating us, with those quick breaks. I expect Liverpool to have the ball, but when they lose it, United will be breaking with five players, and that’s dangerous, man!”
Riise speaks glowingly of Bruno Fernandes, the man he says “changed everything” for United after his arrival a year ago.
“Everything goes through him,” he says. “Even though he plays for United, I enjoy watching him play. He’s my type of player; always positive, always taking risks.”
Liverpool, though, have a few of those too, and it is another high-quality midfielder that gets Riise really purring.
“Thiago, man, what a player!” he gushes. “When he came on against Newcastle, freaking hell, man! You could just see the calmness, the passing. He looks the other way and finds those passes between the lines.
“Xabi Alonso, that’s who he reminds me of. I remember Xabi coming to make his debut at Liverpool and I don’t think he gave the ball away for 45 minutes. It was ridiculous!
“Thiago is like that. They see the pass that nobody else sees, and they don’t just play the easy pass either. They are different, but there are similarities with their class and their composure.
“There are not many players in the world better than Thiago when it comes to passing and, tactically, he’s aggressive too.
“I hope he can stay injury free and get a few games under his belt now, because he can make a huge difference – especially when it comes to opening up defences.”
As for the title race, Riise believes it’s a three-team fight.
“I feel Liverpool are still the strongest,” he says. “United have surprised me so far but I’m not sure they will keep going until the end.
“City look like they are getting back towards their best, which is concerning. The other clubs, Chelsea, Spurs, I think they lose too many games.”
And Sunday? How big will that be?
“United have been beating the teams they are expected to beat, but Sunday is where the real test comes,” Riise adds.
“It’s time for Liverpool to show what they are capable of and take control again. It’s not a must-win, but to stop that run of Manchester United and show who the boss is, I think that would be big.”