Manchester United have eternal rivals just 10 kilometres from Old Trafford.
But the chance to extend Liverpool’s Premier League title drought with a victory in Sunday’s crunch top-four clash at Old Trafford – even if it boosts Manchester City’s hopes of repeating as league champions – is something supporters are hanging their hopes on while their side vies for a top-four finish.
(Eds note – the expectation upon further review is the standard 4-3-3 for Liverpool with Mane, Firmino, and Salah up front, and Henderson in midfield with Wijnaldum and Keita)
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The serial winners of the 1970s and 1980s in addition to being five-time European champions, the one thing missing from Liverpool’s trophy case is a Premier League title. The Reds (20-4-1) have finished runners-up on three occasions in the Premier League era, most recently in 2013-14 when Steven Gerrard’s slip defending against Chelsea allowed City to claim the title.
Last year’s runners-up finish in the Champions League further whetted the appetite of a Liverpool fan base desperate for that title. And in the midst of what could become an all-time title race against defending champions City, Liverpool continue to embrace the challenge that comes with vanquishing this long-standing ghost.
“A lot: it’s the only game we have at the weekend and it’s against Manchester United. It’s a big one, absolutely a big one, and we know it is a difficult one as well,” Klopp said at his Friday news conference. “They are in a good moment – a really good moment – they are physically strong, they defend well, they attack well. Against Chelsea (in the FA Cup on Monday night), I saw the game and Chelsea were not as bad as everyone made them out to be after the game, but United scored in perfect moments and scored two brilliant goals. They are full of confidence, all that stuff, that’s how they’re going at the moment, that’s clear.
“We will go there and be as good as possibly prepared and try everything to get a result there, that’s the plan. You never know. Two strong teams will face each other and so it’s open until the final whistle.”
This is Liverpool’s game in hand against Manchester City, who will attempt to repeat as Carabao Cup champions against Chelsea at Wembley Stadium after the final whistle of this match. Liverpool trail City on goal difference, so while this contest cannot truly be classified as a must-win, they need at least one point to keep the pressure on the Citizens.
Liverpool are coming off a scoreless draw at home versus Bayern Munich in their first-leg round of 16 Champions League tie. Considering the Reds played without suspended centre back Virgil Van Dijk, not conceding an away goal made the draw an acceptable result and left everything to play for in the return leg in Germany in just over a fortnight’s time.
Klopp confirmed centre backs Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez have been ruled out of this match, leaving Joel Matip and Fabinho as partnering options with Van Dijk in the spine of the back four for Liverpool. Fabinho has been a capable partner with Van Dijk previously, but the more important personnel note was the return of Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back.
His absence arguably proved more problematic for Klopp, who had been rotating midfielders John Milner, Adam Lallana, and others into the role as he moved back and forth from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Though the 4-2-3-1 may be preferred given United’s still inconsistent defence, Xherdan Shaqiri might not be fully match-fit as he continues to deal with an abdominal injury that led to him being held out against Bayern since there were no goals.
Salah, still looking for his 50th Premier League goal, has yet to score against United entering his fourth league match against them.
Manchester United (15-6-5) have a one-point lead over Arsenal and Chelsea for the fourth and final Champions League spot and have beaten both en route to the FA Cup quarterfinals. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side bounced back from a 2-0 home loss to PSG in their first-leg round of 16 Champions League tie by eliminating Chelsea from the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge on Monday.
Paul Pogba – whose late red card against PSG ruled him out of the second leg – atoned for that sending off by setting up Ander Herrera’s goal and scoring just before halftime. Solskjaer – continuing his on-going audition for the full-time manager job – again showed his coaching nous by putting Juan Mata at the tip of a midfield diamond that bamboozled Chelsea’s Sarri-ball.
“We want to build this team where it’s worthy of Manchester United’s history,” Solskjaer told United’s official website. “It’s another step on if we can do that home. Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea, away, it was fantastic to win those three away games but now we need to perform at home as well.”
Pogba has factored in 15 goals (nine goals, six assists) in 12 matches since Solskjaer’s arrival, and United is 11-1-1 under their former striker and Norway international.
Solskjaer does have some injury issues to sort out in his first XI. Both Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard were forced off against PSG due to injury, with Lingard’s severe enough he could not last through first-half stoppage time. Martial came off at the break, and Solskjaer made it sound that Lingard was closer in terms of availability than the France international.
“I hope and think Anthony will be ready and I hope Jesse will be ready because it’s two different injuries,” the Norwegian said. “So maybe more hope than think, with Anthony as well, but he’s got a chance. Anyway, we still hope Jesse could be ready. Let’s see. We’ve still got a couple of days’ training left and they need to be part of it.”
Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku are waiting in the wings if neither can play, with Sanchez the primary replacement for Lingard and Lukaku for Martial. In the case of the latter, it may wind up forcing Solskjaer to use a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Shaqiri’s second-half brace separated the sides in mid-December at Anfield, with the Switzerland international scoring in the 73rd and 80th minutes. Lingard canceled Sadio Mane’s first-half goal with one nine minutes after falling behind.
Liverpool are seeking their first double over United since the 2008-09 season. The Reds have just five wins in 29 visits to Old Trafford in the Premier League era and are winless in five (0-2-3) since a 3-0 romp March 16, 2014, in which Gerrard converted twice from the spot and Luis Suarez added a third late for gloss.
United have come a long way since the reverse fixture that led to the actual end of Jose Mourinho’s tenure at Old Trafford. And while Solskjaer has done as much as he can with what he has, the question of whether the Red Devils have a ceiling is a legitimate one. If the answer is yes, United can take solace in the fact the teams it is battling for fourth — Arsenal and Chelsea — are both flawed as well and could wear themselves out in the race for that final Champions League spot as they both navigate Europa League knockout play.
If the answer is no, the question becomes whether United can open up some ground between the London teams while taking advantage of the opportunity — this weekend at least — to gain ground on Spurs for third.
While Mane does not have the absolutely frightening pace of Kylian Mbappe, he does have more than enough to give United’s back line fits. Firmino has a match nous similar to PSG counterpart Angel Di Maria to find the pockets of space to play in his attacking partners and get Salah his milestone 50th Premier League goal in less than two seasons after arriving from AS Roma.
On the United attack, the matchup of Rashford versus Van Dijk alone is worth the price of admission with his relentless industry against the towering Dutch centre back. What would also benefit Manchester United is a duplicate performance of the effort Pogba had against Chelsea in the FA Cup or his second-half burst to delay the inevitable of Manchester City winning the title last term.
The match does not feel like a bridge too far for Manchester United to claim a point, but at the same time, Solskjaer’s team are going to have to dig deep for it. This is arguably the most important match of Klopp’s tenure — more than last year’s Champions League final — considering this is the one piece of silverware yet to be seen in the Liverpool trophy case.
Liverpool have had time to process their result against Bayern, and though there was no midweek win, this is a side that looks ready to rumble for a title race.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 1, Liverpool 2.