Manchester United play host to Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday 16th March. This is a fixture football fans the world over move Heaven and Earth to pay attention to, but this match in particular carries much greater significance for these teams in the context of the current campaign.
As hosts, Manchester United will want to prove that they still pose a threat to those contesting for league honours in spite of their Premier League position and overall domestic form. Thus far, the champions have only managed one home victory (Arsenal) and a draw (Chelsea) against top-seven opposition, having lost to Newcastle, Everton and Spurs at Old Trafford.
Also to be considered is that barely two weeks after facing Liverpool, United then welcome Manchester City in an effort to keep their European hopes alive. There may only be a quarter of the league season remaining, but there’s plenty to play for.
Liverpool, meanwhile, will want to dispel any adverse hypotheses about their away form this season, and ominously for United, The Reds are yet to lose in 2014 – their most recent losses coming over the Christmas period in away fixtures to Chelsea and Manchester City. Since that time however, in the following nine matches, Liverpool’s only away victories of any significance took place at Stoke and Southampton.
To those less familiar, Stoke is an incredibly difficult place to travel to, especially for top teams. Manchester City, Manchester United, Southampton, Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal have all dropped points at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium this term, so Liverpool’s 5-3 victory there in January cannot be downplayed.
Furthermore, that Liverpool now possesses the most lethal strike duo in all of Europe should give United a few headaches as far as defense is concerned. In fact, only Southampton and Arsenal have proved capable of keeping Liverpool’s S-A-S strike force at bay when the current campaign was still in its infancy. And then consider that Luis Suarez was absent, still serving the remainder of a 10-match ban, in the 1-0 home-loss to Southampton in September.
All that said, the Merseysiders should not think things will go their when they face United on Sunday. The Red Devils are fresh from morale-boosting back-to-back victories against West Brom and Crystal Palace, and are unbeaten in their last four matches. And though Brendan Rodgers’ side boast a better record over the past six games, one fact cannot be discounted going into this one: this is a north-west derby match. Presumptions dare not be made on derby games.
However, I would like to make an educated guess as to who may come out on top by comparing probable team-sheets, player by player.
Manchester United Backline Vs Liverpool’s Attack:
Nemanja Vidic has already made his intentions clear about moving on to Inter Milan in the European summer, though he’ll still give his all for The Red Devils in the season run-in, and especially in a match of this magnitude. Nevertheless, I am left to wonder if his lack of pace on occasion this season will come to the fore again in the face of Liverpool’s searing pace in the shape of Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge. He may even be more exposed when one considers that Patrice Evra can often be found at the opposite end of the pitch.
While I feel Phil Jones has what it takes to become a defensive legend for United, given his size, pace and strength on the ball, much will be placed on his shoulders to protect his goalkeeper. And even more so should David Moyes see fit in playing him out of position in the midfield as he has done on occasion.
Coming back to Evra, and quite aside from his propensity to get forward, he may well be a cause for concern in the United rearguard as he has suffered a number of defensive lapses this season, letting his marker get away in set-piece situations. That said, be in little doubt, Patrice Evra will be up for this one as he, once again, comes up against an old foe in Luis Suarez.
Of course Chris Smalling is in good form, though it remains to be seen if he’s capable of making up for any shortcomings his defensive teammates may possess.
Little needs to be said about Liverpool’s attacking prowess, and the link-up play between their aforementioned front three. The Merseysiders also pose an additional threat from midfield where Gerrard and Countinho have proved proficient in providing regular defense-splitting passes, coupled with Jordan Henderson’s willingness to get forward and score nowadays.
Coming up against a United midfield boasting the talents of Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and a recently-returned Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick, Liverpool’s midfield may indeed struggle for supremacy. Carrick has a flair for breaking up opposition play and getting forward at times to provide a threat, while Fellaini does much the same and adds height and strength to set-pieces.
LIVERPOOL’S DEFENSE VS MAN UNITED FRONT-LINE:
Liverpool’s defense have proved largely ineffective this season, but with a probable return for Lucas Leiva in a defensive midfield role come the weekend, their back four are likely to have some much-needed protection from United’s offensive threat.
Speaking of which, Wayne Rooney in particular has carried the torch for United’s European hopes so far, and with Robin Van Persie lately rediscovering his scoring touch, Liverpool should certainly harbor a few concerns given their defensive record. Factor in the likely inclusion of Juan Mata in midfield, and his ability to provide consistent quality service for his forwards, and Liverpool’s backline may well be found wanting.
Martin Skrtel seems prone to giving away penalties and dangerous free kicks and will be watched closely by the referees. Elsewhere, and similar to their United counterparts, Jon Flanagan and Glen Johnson may find themselves compromised if they make too many forays forward.
Prediction: 3-2 to Liverpool – The Reds have made it a habit of finding the right combinations to unlock defenses to the tune of 2,6 goals per game this season and they’ve shown a penchant for getting on the score sheet early on. At the same time, I don’t see Liverpool’s suspect defense containing the threat posed by United’s Van Persie, Rooney, Januzaj and Mata. This is a stern test for both teams, but I suspect Liverpool may edge it against their fiercest rivals.
Man United (4-5-1): De Gea, Evra, Rafael, Vidic/Smalling, Vidic/Jones, Fellaini, Mata, Carrick, Januzaj, Van Persie, Rooney
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Mignolet, Skrtel, Agger, Flanagan, Johnson, Lucas/Allen, Gerrard, Coutinho, Henderson, Suarez, Sturridge