United v Liverpool: Van Gaal looks to the summit
There was, in truth, rare occasion over the past two decades that this fixture meant as much in competitive terms as it does to the state of local rivalry. While the passion has always burned bright for supporters, only twice during Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford tenure did Liverpool challenge for the Premier League title. Then, with Manchester United’s period of dominance over, Liverpool last season blew its finest opportunity since 1990 to become English champions. Neither on Sunday’s competitors will compete for the title as the 2014/15 campaign draws to a close.
Yet, it is United that begins the 191st tie between England’s finest clubs on the up; Louis van Gaal’s outfit having won five times in succession over the past month to secure third place in the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers’ side, by contrast, has lost four of the past 10 while crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage. Indeed, for the first time in 18 months, it is Liverpool’s manager, not that of United, whom is under the greatest pressure.
The turnaround in United’s fortunes certainly came at a key time for Van Gaal after a mixed start to the campaign. Victories over Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Hull City, Stoke City and Southampton have come amid some indifferent performances, yet the quintet of games has brought 15 points and transformed the club’s season.
After the worst opening 10 games to a campaign since the mid-1980s, creeping optimism has begun to pervade Old Trafford for the first time since Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013. It leaves supporters and manager looking to fresh glory ahead – and to genuine belief that revenge is probably over a Liverpool side that twice defeated David Moyes’ embattled outfit last year.
Van Gaal has rarely expressed doubt since he joined the club after the summer’s World Cup, but the 62-year-old now has the results to put a positive spin on a challenging opening 15 games of the campaign.
“I dream for Manchester City’s place or Chelsea’s place, but now we have to live match for match and that is the most important thing,” Van Gaal told MUTV.
“We have to beat Liverpool which is more important than thinking about City or Chelsea. I still think Liverpool can fight for the top four places and still I have belief in that team because they have fantastic players.”
Crucially, perhaps, United enter the match with the fewest number injuries since Van Gaal joined the club in July. While record signing Angel di Maria is unavailable for another week and Chris Smalling out for a fortnight, the Dutchman boasts more options than at any other time this season.
Despite the respite from what has seemed like an unending succession of injuries Van Gaal has faced criticism for his training regime; not least because United has suffered 43 seperate injuries during the campaign – up to 10 first team players absent at any given time.
This week Ferguson’s former assistant, Mike Phelan, questioned both the “intensity of training” and methods brought to the club by Van Gaal over the past five months. “They’ve brought in new people with a different way of doing things,” claimed Phelan, who is now a coach at Championship side Norwich City.
Smalling’s absence means that Jonny Evans is likely to start alongside Marcos Rojo in central defence, while Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young will continue to act as emergency full-backs in a flat-back four. Rafael da Silva is back in training, but not yet match fit, while Luke Shaw is out until the new year.
In midfield Ander Herrera, Marouanne Fellaini and Michael Carrick could start in a diamond formation. Three from Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and James Wilson will form an attacking trio that aims to break down a Liverpool defence that has conceded 19 goals in the Premier League this season.
Of that quartet it is Van Persie who boasts the best record of late, having scored against Southampton and Hull in recent weeks. The Dutchman this week admitted to suffering a post-World Cup hangover, although in truth the 31-year-old has rarely excelled since Ferguson’s retirement.
“I’ve been feeling very well over the last couple of weeks,” said Van Persie. “Physically, I can make my runs over and over again. I had a feeling that it was coming. I can play 90 minutes easy and every time it gets easier. I could keep going in the last minutes and that’s what you want. Then the goals, assists, wins will come.”
Meanwhile, Rodgers is able to call on both Adam Lallana and Mario Ballotelli for the short journey to Old Trafford. Lallana has two cracked ribs, but is fit to play while Balotelli is back in training after missing six matches with a groin injury.
Still, for the first time in two and a half years as Liverpool manager serious questions are being raised about the Northern Irishman’s vision. After all, while Liverpool lost Luis Suarez in the summer, the club spent some £130 million in the market to compensate. That so much of that money went on players who are yet to impress at Anfield is unlikely to have gone unnoticed in the boardroom.
“Criticism comes with the territory when you don’t win games,” claimed Rodgers, whose side lies ninth in the Premier League.
“Football is very short term. The same people who are criticising me now were maybe saying I couldn’t do anything wrong six or seven months ago. The message from me is clear: I don’t think there would be anyone better to do the job here. Seven months ago we nearly won the title unexpectedly, I had time to work with players and we took them beyond where the club has been in a long time.”
That run to second place in the Premier League brought two victories over United. In fact the Merseysiders have won the past three in succession against United and five in the last 10. Yet, it is a run that United’s form suggests will end on Sunday.
“I am aware of the rivalry,” said Van Gaal on Friday. Few United fans will let the Dutchman forget it if Liverpool secure another victory at Old Trafford.
United (4-1-3-2): de Gea; Valencia, Evans, Rojo, Young; Carrick; Herrera, Fellaini, Mata; Van Persie, Rooney
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Manquillo, Skrtel, Touré, Johnson; Allen, Lucas; Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling; Lambert
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Jones, McNair, Rafael, Anderson, Fletcher, Januzaj, Falcao, Wilson
Liverpool: Jones, Sakho, Lovren, Moreno, José Enrique, Coutinho, Can, Lallana, Markovic, Borini, Balotelli
United 75 – Draw 51 – Liverpool 64
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: J Moss
United 1-0 Liverpool
£1 bet club
Robin van Persie to score first @ 6/1
Running total: £(-)6