Sunday 15th January 2017 – 16.00 – Sky Sports 1 HD
No doubt the biggest game of the weekend and one of, if not the biggest game of, the Premier League calendar takes place on Sunday afternoon as bitter rivals face off; as Manchester United take on Liverpool at Old Trafford.
Man United have been in great form recently winning the last 9 games in a row in all competitions, their best run in nearly 8 years. They are unbeaten in 15 and have drastically reduced the points difference between them and the top 4 in recent weeks. Whilst over this period they have remained in 6th place for much of it, they are only 1 point behind Arsenal, and only 3 behind City and Tottenham. A win on Sunday would reduce the gap between them and Liverpool to only 2 points, United will be right back amongst it in the battle for a top 4 finish.
It seems a world away from the match at Anfield earlier on in the season, where Liverpool were in near unstoppable form and United were happy with an away 0-0 draw. You feel this game will have a different look and feel altogether.
Jose Mourinho has finally started to settle on a core nucleus of a team, something that wasn’t the case when the two clubs last met. One thing that has ignited this run is the midfield combination of Carrick, Herrera, and Pogba. All 3 have been in great form of late. Pogba is starting to show why he’s such a highly rated player, his range of passing is second to none.
Along with the midfield settlement, the form Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been fantastic. He already has 18 goals in 28 games this season (if you include the Community Shield), and 13 in the Premier League level with Alexis Sanchez, and only 1 behind Diego Costa. 13 goals in his first 19 Premier League appearances is the same record as Dwight Yorke and Robin van Persie. Only Ruud van Nistelrooy had scored more in his first 19 games for the club. He is a major player who scores important goals and United will hope he will make a return to the starting XI, having missed out in the midweek EFL Semi Final against Hull City through illness.
Another bonus for Mourinho’s United, alongside the settled midfield and form of Ibrahimovic, is a defence that seems makeshift, yet have performed immensely in recent weeks. In the run of 9 consecutive wins, United have only conceded 3 goals, a sign that whilst Mourinho is enjoying the chance to be a bit more attacking, his belief of a strong team based around a solid defence still holds true.
United will hope Marcus Rojo recovers from a knock but still remains a doubt.
Liverpool haven’t had the best start to 2017 it would be fair to say, with 2 draws and a defeat, all to teams they’d probably be expecting to beat. Klopp’s decision to rest key players last Sunday against Plymouth backfired, as they could only manage a 0-0 draw and a as a result earned themselves a replay, to be played 3 days after the game on Sunday. The decision to rest players, with the EFL Cup Semi Final in mind also didn’t play out, with Liverpool losing the first leg of the Semi Final to Southampton, which now leaves the club in a poor run of recent form, not quite the confidence booster that helps going into games of this magnitude. Jurgen Klopp himself stated that if they play against United as they did against Southampton, they might as well save the petrol money!
Whilst 2017 hasn’t started great, they are still having a very good season, they are unbeaten in their last 6 league games, and currently sit 2nd in the league with the highest number of goals scored. If you offered Liverpool fans this at the start of the season, most would have bitten your hand off.
An added pressure or incentive depending on the Liverpool player’s frame of mind will ride on the outcome of the Chelsea vs Leicester game on Saturday afternoon. A Chelsea win, will mean Liverpool will know they need to beat United, as an 8 point gap between them and top spot would be really hard to overturn. It also means United will only be 2 points behind them. Chelsea dropping points however could also add to the pressure Liverpool put on themselves as they will desperately want to close the gap at the top. Mourinho will know this and will look to unsettle and perhaps grab an early goal, something Liverpool must be wary of.
Liverpool don’t have a great recent record at Old Trafford, Liverpool losing 11 of their last 14 visits in the Premier League and will be hindered in no small way by Sadio Mané’s absence due to his involvement in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. The Senegal forward has been involved in 13 Premier League goals this season for the Reds scoring 9 goals, and creating 4 assists.
One bonus for Liverpool however is the return of Phillippe Coutinho, who made a substitute appearance in the EFL Cup Semi Final mid-week. This is a great boost for Liverpool, as he is one of the league’s top midfielders. Whist he won’t be fully match fit having missed so much time, his ability from dead ball situations always makes him a threat.
Another player who can step up in the absence of Mane, is Adam Lallana who has had a great season so far. Lallana has been involved in 14 Premier League goals this season more than any other English player.
Joel Matip and Jordan Henderson face late fitness tests but are both likely to make the match day squads if not start.
Manchester United v Liverpool is a game that captures a worldwide audience and very rarely lets you down as a spectacle. As both teams are in need of 3 points and both so close, it adds an extra dimension to this match.
On top of all of this, if Wayne Rooney plays a part it will be his 450th Premier League game, becoming only the 21st player in Premier League history to reach this landmark. What an occasion for him to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s United goal record, and as a betting man I wouldn’t put my money against it.
By Michael Thatcher