Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford on Sunday could prove the pivotal moment in the Reds pursuit of a first title in 30 years. Who knows?
These things only become clear in retrospect. For all we know, that moment may have already passed us by: Riyadh Mahrez’s missed penalty at Anfield perhaps; or Leroy Sane’s late winner at Etihad in January.
What we do know is this: the whole of Manchester – both red and blue persuasions – will be united against Liverpool’s cause when they take the field against Manchester United on Sunday afternoon.
Never mind that Manchester City will play Chelsea later that day in a bid to claim the season’s first trophy in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley, all eyes will be firmly focused on happenings at the so called “Theatre of Dreams”. And it’s not only about the title race; United currently sit in 4th place and are locked in a close battle with both Chelsea and Arsenal for that final Champions League place.
It all seems so decisive – so pivotal – yet it’s worth noting that 11 rounds of matches follow this game before the season is done. There’s still a lot of football to be played.
A lot can happen in 11 games and there’s no better example of that this season than this Manchester United team. Two months ago, they trudged off the field at Anfield on the wrong end of a 1-3 score line that marked their fifth defeat in 17 games, a defeat that effectively drew the curtains on the tenure of a certain Jose Mourinho.
They have not lost a Premier League game since then, racking up eight wins and one draw in that time under caretaker-manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.
This much is now clear: the powers that be at United made the right call when they decided to turf the feisty Portuguese and replace him with their Norwegian former striker. Regardless of whether they backed Mourinho or not – they didn’t last summer – Solksjaer has shown that there is still enough quality in this squad to launch a credible challenge for a top four spot (at the very least).
Mourinho left United 12 points adrift of the top four, shipping goals at will and playing turgid, safety first football. That Solksjaer has them sat in 4th place two months later is as much a testament to the remarkable turnaround he has marshalled, as it is a glaring indictment of his predecessor’s stewardship in his last few months on the job.
The names may be largely the same – Paul Pogba will start this time for sure – but Solksjaer’s starters on Sunday will be a far cry from the dejected bunch that were well beaten at Liverpool in December. Not only has Solksjaer brought back the bold attacking style that was the hallmark of United teams of yore, he has also instilled much needed organisation and solidity at the back.
Highlighted most notably by the return to form of David de Gea and the emergence of Swedish centre back Victor Lindelof. In midfield, Pogba, largely unused in Mourinho’s final weeks, has been a real driving force, showing off his incredible passing range and chipping in with goals and assists – “the real Pogba” according to Klopp. The defensive side of his game remains a concern, but his performance in last Monday’s FA Cup win at Chelsea hinted that he may be learning to curb his tendency to break formation when his team need to keep a compact shape.
It’s a trait he will need to show again if United are to succeed against Liverpool’s fluid, unpredictable attack. Klopp’s men would have been encouraged by PSG’s comfortable 2-0 win at Old Trafford last week and will look to hurt the home team pretty much in the same way the French champions – even without stars Edison Cavani and Neymar – were able to in that Champions League match up.
Football is not mathematics, of course, and past results count for nothing on the day, but Liverpool can draw further comfort from the fact that the Parisians (with both Cavani and Neymar in attendance) left Anfield in defeat on their last visit to England in September.
Still, Liverpool are not exactly in the free flying form they were in the last time these two teams clashed. In December, they were in the middle of an 11-match winning streak; since then, they’ve lost once and drawn two of their last seven Premier League matches.
They come into this tie on the back of a 0-0 Champions League home draw against Bayern Munich, a match in which they showed a lot of the creative combination play that sent them to the top of the table in December, but none of the ruthless finishing they will need to keep them there till May.
Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Bobby Firmino will need to do much better against a rejuvenated de Gea if Liverpool are to take three points at Old Trafford. It’s especially important that they score first; this United team will attack, but they are not averse to circling the wagons if they have a lead – just ask Spurs.
Klopp will be happy to welcome back Virgil van Dijk, who was suspended for the Bayern game, which means the excellent Fabinho can step back into a midfield in which Klopp is suddenly spoilt for choice. The in-form Gini Wijnaldum has been Liverpool’s most consistent midfielder this season; captain Jordan Henderson played a blinder against Bayern in midweek; Naby Keita is finally showing glimpses of the creative player he was at Leipzig, and James Milner remains a reliable contributor in any position. Three of those five will start. It’s a nice problem to have.
Not so nice is the one that Solksjaer will have to address if both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial – both injured in the PSG match – fail to recover in time for this match. United aren’t short of replacements, of course, but the likes of Juan Mata, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku just don’t carry the same pace and directness that those two have shown since Solksjaer arrived.
Their absence would make for a less dangerous – and perhaps more cautious? – Manchester United with Marcus Rashford carrying the biggest threat.
Who will win? United are in great form – and this is Old Trafford – but Liverpool have the better team.
I don’t like making predictions – football is too crazy – but my head tells me Klopp’s title chasers will win this one.
Or is that my heart speaking?