The Premier League returns with a bang on Saturday lunchtime with one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures in the English football calendar. Everton and Manchester City may beg to differ but supporters of both Liverpool and Manchester United will tell you that this is the derby that most look forward to.
Four games ago, this looked like being a top of the table clash. Two draws and a defeat in that spell saw Liverpool slump to 7th in the table while United are second, behind Manchester City on goal difference.
Injuries plague Jurgen Klopp and underline the difference between the two squads. United are without Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Fellaini but are barely blinking at that prospect. Sadio Mane’s hamstring injury suffered during the international break is a hammer blow to a Liverpool manager and squad which is stumbling and reeling in the Premier League at the moment.
United meanwhile, are enjoying a revival under Jose Mourinho, using the building block of last season and turning it into a positive this time around. After the doldrums of the Moyes and Van Gaal eras, the Stretford End is enjoying this season while it lasts. Can the Portuguese drag a title challenge out of his squad or will they crumble under pressure?
This weekend may give the first hint of an answer.
When the full-time whistle sounded, Anfield was convinced this was the dawning of a new era. Arsenal slunk back to north London with their tails between their legs and a 0 – 4 thrashing to contemplate. Football asked if Liverpool were launching a title challenge and whether Arsene Wenger’s reign was disintegrating.
Fast forward four weeks and the roles are reversed. Wenger has seen his side move to 5th in the table but Liverpool are in freefall with pressure growing on Jurgen Klopp. News of Mane’s hamstring injury won’t improve the German’s mood.
Roberto Firmino is likeliest to replace the Senegalese international. Daniel Sturridge’s return has yet to yield the goals Liverpool require. Indeed, he has scored more for country than club (2 vs 1) in five appearances with little sign in his Liverpool performances that he is the solution to that problem.
It’s in moments like this that Adam Lallana’s absence is painfully obvious. Philippe Coutinho assumes the mantle of creator and scorer while the England striker alleviates some of that responsibility.
Liverpool’s midfield is functional at best. Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum are sporadic goal threats at best. Jordan Henderson’s captaincy provides the passion but the Reds need their Brazilian genius to be in fine form.
The biggest concern at Anfield are the continued woes in goal. Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius are engaged in an eternal battle over who can be least reliable, chiding each other into the lowering the bar of expectations every season.
For a wealthy club, there is a madness which hangs like a pall over Liverpool each transfer window. Attacking players are purchased as if they are going out of fashion with scant regard to one of the most important positions on the pitch.
Klopp’s mood will not be improved by news that Dejan Lovren is unlikely to be fit for Saturday’s clash; Ragnar Klavan will deputise.
Few expected United to be genuine title challengers; finishing in the top four, perhaps even pushing Chelsea for second but top of the pile? The script dictated that was still a season away.
And it still might be. Form says United are challengers but a row of ‘W’ with the odd ‘D’ interspersed doesn’t tell the full story. Indeed, the ‘D’ is the only clue, their poor result in the Premier League came in the draw at Stoke.
At home and abroad, United have beaten opposition they should have. There hasn’t been a test in the Premier League nor in any knockout competition.
Between now and the next international break, the tests queue up. Four away games on the trot, followed by Tottenham, Benfica and Chelsea in an intense seven-day spell. No-one said winning the title or Champions League would be easy but now is the testing time.
Mourinho is an expert in getting results. The XIs United field are built with that in mind. Last season’s stultifying goalless draw in this fixture sapped the will to live from neutral observers. Mourinho fielded a side which wasn’t going to lose and they didn’t.
The same philosophy this time around should be expected. United know it is their first genuine test, with a real sense of occasion. Opportunities are likely to be scarce and these are the matches where Romelu Lukaku begins to justify his fee.
He scored in Belgium’s 4 – 0 win over Cyprus, bringing his total to the season to 21 in 19 appearances for club and country. Since Les Diables Rouges 9 – 0 win over Gibraltar in August – he grabbed a hat-trick – Lukaku has scored in every game; 12 in 9, for the record. It’s an incredible record and belies those who said he couldn’t wouldn’t make the grade at Old Trafford.
So long as he continues this streak, United will be in good shape at the top of the table.
FORM (Last six Premier League games)
- Manchester United have won HT / FT in 6 of their last 8 matches.
- 7 of United’s 10 games this season have seen +2.5 goals.
- Manchester United have kept 8 clean sheets in their last 9 games.
- Liverpool are unbeaten in 28 of their last 30 home games in the Premier League.
- Manchester United have won 7 of their last 8 games.
CURRENT MATCH ODDS (BEST PRICED ODDS)
HEAD TO HEAD
|Last six meetings|
|15th January 2017||EPL||Manchester United||1-1||Liverpool|
|17th October 2016||EPL||Liverpool||0-0||Manchester United|
|17th March 2016||UEL||Manchester United||1-1||Liverpool|
|10th March 2016||UEL||Liverpool||2-0||Manchester United|
|17th January 2016||EPL||Liverpool||0-1||Manchester United|
|12th September 2015||EPL||Manchester United||3-1||Liverpool|
The form book says Manchester United. Liverpool’s form prior to the international break was one win in seven in all competitions. The only victory came at the King Power Stadium, a five-goal thriller against Leicester.
Therein is Liverpool’s problem. It’s been 7 games since their last clean sheet, the 4 – 0 drubbing of Arsenal. That match promised much and the Reds have roundly failed to deliver since. Four draws in that time and the concern is that only Sevilla were rated a strong side beforehand and United are ready to exploit those weaknesses.
The absence of Marouane Fellaini will hurt United but they have the depth to cover. Indeed, in the tinderbox atmosphere of Anfield he may not be missed. Discipline is the key to a United victory; Liverpool will be fired up for the fixture but Mourinho’s plan will be to stifle and exploit their frustration.