Battle for top four begins as Reds face old enemy
“I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them,” Gary Neville once noted of Manchester United’s opponents this Sunday. It is a sentiment that resonates with many. And so often in the past this game would have been the most important on the football calendar; two North West giants toe-to-toe in another Cup final or with a League title on the line. It is a very different time for English football’s greatest clubs.
On the outside looking in, United and Liverpool now face a battle with each other to secure a place in the top four – and with it Champions League football. Together the clubs have shared 38 league titles and eight European Cups, yet both desperately need a win on Sunday in order to keep the pace with once lowly Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur. How times change.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this when United brought Louis van Gaal to the club in 2013. Much the same could be said of Jurgen Klopp, the German recruited to arrest Liverpool’s slide. Neither club has shown signs of progress since the two managers joined their respective teams. United has probably gone backwards.
The Reds’ thrilling 3-3 draw with Newcastle United split the fanbase. For some, the simple pleasure of seeing the team score more than two goals for the first time since last October was enough to proffer Van Gaal some credit. Others, however, view United’s draw at St. James’ Park as another frustrating night of progress and regression, all within 90 minutes.
In truth, United attacked with far more intent than in recent weeks. Van Gaal’s team offered pace on the wings, with Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial driving at Newcastle’s full-backs. Even Wayne Rooney looked something like the player of old. Yet, whatever the intent, the game proved to be another game in which United could not attack without turning into a shambles at the back. The frustration is that this United side should be winning comfortably at the 18th-placed team in the league – and ended up dropping two more points.
Liverpool, meanwhile, also played out a 3-3 thriller at home to league leaders Arsenal. Klopp’s focus on pressing created an early goal for the home side only for Arsenal to battle back and take the lead in an ever-changing fixture. Liverpool snatched a late point thanks to Joe Allen’s equaliser – it leaves the Anfield club just three points behind United.
Both sides remains in poor form coming into Sunday’s fixture t hough. While Van Gaal might have supporters believe his team is still in the race for the title, the reality is United’s battle is for fourth. The Dutchman’s side has won only one of its last eight matches in the league, conceding 10 goals in the past six league games alone. Klopp’s side is just as poor, having picked up just eight points from an available 21.
It is little surprise that England’s biggest rivalry is now dubbed as a battle between fallen giants. Yet, this fixture has served up some classics encounters in recent times, with 14 goals scored in the last six league meetings between the sides. United has generally come out on top too – the Reds have won six of the last eight league meetings between the sides.
It will be Klopp’s first taste of the fixture, and the German was quick to increase the pressure ahead of the game.
“Sunday is important for the table as we are close together, both teams need the points,” said the former Borussia Dortmund manager. “It’s a special game for me and the club. I enjoyed the atmosphere against Arsenal, but I think we can do better.”
Sunday won’t be the first time the two managers have met though, with Van Gaal regularly going head to head with Klopp in the Bundesliga. The two managers have an even record – played four, winning two each. It is a record that has made no dent on Van Gaal’s confidence.
“”I know that [it is an important game for the fans], I have seen the reaction when we beat them, I think everybody is ready to play this game,” the Dutchman said.
Readiness is the minimum expectation, of course. The question, having played with far more freedom against Newcastle, is whether the United manager is brave enough to employ similar tactics on Sunday.
“We threw it away,” was Van Gaal’s assessment after Tuesday night’s draw, which has led many fans to expect a more conservative line-up against Liverpool due to Klopp’s high-intensity pressing system. Yet, with speculation suggesting Van Gaal’s fate could be decided by a loss on Sunday, the Dutchman can hardly afford the cautious approach.
Team news and line-ups
Liverpool subs from: Jones, Caulker, Lucas, Allen, Smith, Ward, Lallana, Teixeira
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Varela, Borthwick-Jackson, Schweinsteiger, Fellaini, Memphis, Januzaj
After United’s heroic away day at Anfield last season fans hope for a similar result on Sunday. Anything other than a win over United’s great rivals might well see resentment towards Van Gaal hit a new peak.
On the injury front, the Reds are not yet ready to welcome back Michael Carrick, whilst Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia remain on the treatment table. Van Gaal revealed that Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones trained with the first team this week, but remain doubtful. Adnan Januzaj could be included in the 18-man squad for the first time since returning from a disappointing spell in Germany with Klopp’s old club.
In defence, Ashley Young and Darmian continue at full-back, though on which side is anyone’s guess, whilst Chris Smalling and Daley Blind are once again partnered at centre back. It’s a back four looks set to stay together for the foreseeable future, with injuries afflicting three senior defenders in the squad.
Darmian was quick to stress the importance of winning the clash at Anfield on Sunday. “It is a big match against Liverpool this weekend. We’ll try to be ready for the game and we must focus on the challenge – we want to win!”
The Italian won the season’s first in-house Player of the Month Award back in August and looked to be the answer to a problem at right-back that has dogged the club since Gary Neville’s retirement. Yet, his form has been erratic in recent months, although the full-back has enjoyed some more positive performances of late. If he starts Darmian will become only the second Italian to play for United at Anfield after Massimo Taibi.
In midfield Marouanne Fellaini’s disastrous performance against Newcastle offers his manager a key decision. The Belgium midfielder was booked for persistent fouling within the first 15 minutes of the game and provided the ‘assist’ for Newcastle’s first goal, to mention nothing of missing a free header from five yards out that would have made the score 4-2 in United’s favour. Indeed, the stats when Fellaini is absent say much, with United remaining unbeaten this season when the Belgian isn’t involved. Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin are both available, and would provide much-needed quick passing and aggression in United’s midfield.
Further forward, Juan Mata should return to the line-up after being rested in midweek. The Spaniard’s form has been poor since a promising start to the season, however Mata will hope to continue where he left off against Liverpool – he has registered three goals and two assists in his last three appearances against the Scousers.
Jesse Lingard continues on the left after an excellent performance against Newcastle. Lingard’s willingness to run off the ball created more space than usual for Rooney during the week – and to devastating effect. If Herrera drops into a deeper role Rooney could return to the number 10 position. The captain has started 2016 in good form, with four goals in three games, and a man-of-the-match performance against Newcastle. If he scores, Rooney will have hit the net on four consecutive games for the first time since March 2012.
Anthony Martial could return to his favoured number nive position after a hit-and-miss performance on Tuesday. The Frenchman is more comfortable playing on the left, rather than the right, although Van Gaal might restore the teenager to a central position, enabling United to exploit the lack of pace in Liverpool’s defence.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, R West
Fourth official: A Taylor
Liverpool 1-2 United