Each has enjoyed the swing of contrasting fortune this season. While Manchester United has spent much of the post-autumn period in the top four, at one point losing just twice in more than 20 games, it is Liverpool’s late run that threatens to usurp Louis van Gaal’s side in the race for European football. Indeed, Sunday’s 192nd fixture between these side could prove critical in the in the hunt for a place among the continent’s élite.
It is the hosts that start favourites on Sunday, with Brendan Rodgers’ outfit having taken 33 points from a possible 39 since United beat the Merseysiders 3-0 at Old Trafford in December. That result prompted a radical shift in Rodgers’ tactical thinking: a switch to the 3-4-2-1 system that has not always served Van Gaal well this season. Still, it is that attacking outlook has brought Liverpool eight victories from the past 10 matches. The best form in the Premier League.
United’s results, by contrast, have largely outstripped performances since that December fixture, albeit until Van Gaal’s side thumped Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. Painful defeats to Southampton and Swansea City over the past 10 matches have offered rivals a leg-up in the pursuit Champions League qualification; United’s disjointed performances stretch further than two reverses.
Van Gaal’s side does at least hold a touch of momentum after coasting to victory over Spurs through a trio of first half strikes. It was a performance that United must build on, says the Dutchman, if Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal are not to pull ahead in the “rat race” for third and fourth place. Not least because the Londoners and United’s cross-town rivals each won over the weekend.
“We have to confirm it against Liverpool,” said Van Gaal on Friday, “because when we can confirm it then we can show that we are there. But it is the most difficult ground for Manchester United I have heard.
“It shall last to the end and we are very close, but a win helps – it helps a lot. After a victory you need another victory to confirm what you have done. But Liverpool needs another victory after the loss against us. That was their last loss – in December – it’s unbelievable.”
United’s victory over Spurs came with yet another system, albeit one closer to a shape that suits the talent on hand. After deploying a three-man defence and diamond midfield at times this season, United’s five across midfield swamped the Londoners and offered Van Gaal’s side both strong defensive and attacking platforms on which to build.
Much to the surprise of many, Marouane Fellaini has become an part of that midfield – and a potential match-winner on Sunday. The Belgian cannot boast the technical finesse to control the tempo of United’s play nor the physicality to dominate midfield, but has proven an impactful attacking presence this season. It was Fellaini’s surprising burst of speed and clean left-footed strike gave United the lead against Tottenham last weekend.
“He has qualities that now, at this moment, he can contribute a lot,” said van Gaal of the £27 million player. “That is why he is playing. He also allows me to give balance to the team and that is important for a manager who is looking for balance. I think he has to play higher and higher up and Michael Carrick has to play deeper.
“I have said a lot of times he is a player that gives a solution for beating the pressing of the opponents. That’s also a contribution, he has more contributions but that is one of his contributions.”
The price is a style of football that is not always pleasing on the eye. Van Gaal’s side played more than 17 per cent of its passes long last weekend – more than any other side in the top seven.
On the pitch United welcome Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw back to the matchday squad, although it remains unlikely that either will start at Anfield. Meanwhile, striker Robin Van Persie began training this week, with the Dutchman at least a fortnight away from the first team.
Van Gaal could name a largely unchanged side, with both Ander Herrera and Juan Mata set to retain their places in the starting side, although Angel di Maria is available after serving a one-match suspension. In defence Daley Blind is set for another run at left-back, with Rojo and Shaw making the bench at best.
Meanwhile, the hosts welcome back Lucas Leiva for Sunday’s fixture after injury, with Mario Balotelli also available after the Italian missed last Monday’s victory over Swansea through illness.
Rodgers’ side lay 11th in the Premier League table after last December’s loss at Old Trafford, some 10 points behind United. That gap has been bridged, with victory for the home side on Sunday potentially swinging the competition for Champions League football next season with just eight games to go.
“There is still a long way to go, but there would be a psychological boost from winning this game,” said Rodgers.
“I think the psychology of being so far behind United and then clawing it back in a short period, and possibly going above United, will help the players. We had big pressure games against Tottenham, Southampton and Manchester City so we know we can cope with the pressure.”
The psychological side will be keenly felt in Van Gaal’s camp too. The Dutchman’s side bounced back decisively from FA Cup defeat to Arsenal. Should the Reds suffer a reverse in Sunday’s trip to Anfield confidence could take a more serious turn.
“The next game is the most important game – especially in this rat race, but of course I know it is our competitor too,” admits Van Gaal. “I know it is, for our fans, the enemy and it’s very important. I want to win against Liverpool again. It shall be very difficult.”
Difficult. And probably decisive.
Liverpool (3-4-2-1): Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Sakho; Sterling, Henderson, Allen, Moreno; Lallana, Coutinho; Sturridge
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Liverpool: Jones, Johnson, K Touré, Lovren, Gerrard, Lambert, Markovic, Balotelli
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, McNair, James, Shaw, Blackett, Valencia, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
Liverpool 64 – Draw 51 – United 76
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Liverpool 1-2 United
£1 bet club
1-2 @ 10/1
Running total: (-)£1.50
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