It’s two years since Jurgen Klopp took the reigns, to much fanfare, at Anfield. The two-time Bundesliga title winner was suppose to turn a great club around; to provide the catalyst for the kind of renaissance that Sir Alex Ferguson once offered Manchester United. Two years in and Klopp is floundering, no nearer to restoring Liverpool to greatness than Ferguson was in his first two seasons at Old Trafford three decades ago. Meanwhile, José Mourinho has led a resurgent United side to three trophies and a place near the top of the Premier League. It surely couldn’t go wrong at Anfield this Saturday. Could it?
“It’s just a match. It’s three points. When you are in a big club, when you are a big player, when you are a big manager, every game is important. Every match is a cup final.” – José Mourinho.
It is an interesting theory, one fitting with Mourinho’s detached managerial demeanour. Yet, when it comes to Liverpool versus United, the Portuguese coach could not be further off base. Mourinho’s assessment may be empirically true – Saturday’s game is worth just three points – but it is as emotionally distant as possible, and an argument with which supporters cannot relate. After all, United’s clash with Liverpool is always more than just a match. It remains England’s greatest game.
It’s nine victories in a row for Manchester United, the longest winning run since the 2008/09 title-winning campaign. Six of those wins have come in the league, yet the Reds remain stuck in sixth place – Mourinho’s men are running to stand still. It is a frustrating anomaly, but there is much more to the team’s turnaround than league standing. After what seems like an eternity, it feels like watching United again. What more could be asked heading into Liverpool’s visit on Sunday?
As far as club fixtures go there are only a handful in world football that lie firmly in the ‘unmissable’ category. El Clasico certainly, which resembles a soap opera given the drama of the players involved. The Auld Firm produces pure hatred between the two Glasgow sides, as does the Derby Della Capitale between Roma and Lazio. The Manchester derby is fast becoming the Hollywood blockbuster fixture of which Sky Sports and Twitter’s football hipsters dream. Yet, Liverpool against Manchester United has something just a little different.
In a season of frustrating mediocrity Louis van Gaal has few chances left to achieve redemption. Despite the Dutchman’s, frankly, ludicrous assertion that his “philosophy” is working, Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford has been little short of a catastrophe. With the club some 13 points shy of the Premier League summit, facing a tough FA Cup replay at West Ham United, and starting Thursday night’s Europa League game two goals down to Liverpool, it is likely Van Gaal will leave Old Trafford having presided over two barren years.
Much has been made over the possible “Liverpoolisation” of Manchester United. United is mounting a desperate challenge to qualify for the Champions League, but with some irony faces elimination from the seemingly winnable Europa League at the hands of the old enemy, Liverpool.
There is obvious cause for concern at Manchester United this season. Rant Cast has taken to summing up United’s long-term prospects as the “Liverpoolisation” of the club. The obvious gist is that United, having enjoyed two decades of supreme dominance over English football, have come to the end of a cycle and that, for the time being at least, the glory days have gone. I’m writing this article as a Liverpool fan that has witnessed the club’s dramatic decline from the top – and whilst in the short-term United have obvious problems, there are completely different circumstances that will prevent the club from going down Liverpool’s path. Read More
“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. Read More
“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.”
It was, as ever, Sir Alex Ferguson’s defiance in the face of media criticism that elicited the Scot’s best and most memorable invective. “And you can print that,” was the appendage that inspired a thousand banners.
Each has enjoyed the swing of contrasting fortune this season. While Manchester United has spent much of the post-autumn period in the top four, at one point losing just twice in more than 20 games, it is Liverpool’s late run that threatens to usurp Louis van Gaal’s side in the race for European football. Indeed, Sunday’s 192nd fixture between these side could prove critical in the in the hunt for a place among the continent’s élite.
It is the hosts that start favourites on Sunday, with Brendan Rodgers’ outfit having taken 33 points from a possible 39 since United beat the Merseysiders 3-0 at Old Trafford in December. That result prompted a radical shift in Rodgers’ tactical thinking: a switch to the 3-4-2-1 system that has not always served Van Gaal well this season. Still, it is that attacking outlook has brought Liverpool eight victories from the past 10 matches. The best form in the Premier League.
United’s results, by contrast, have largely outstripped performances since that December fixture, albeit until Van Gaal’s side thumped Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. Painful defeats to Southampton and Swansea City over the past 10 matches have offered rivals a leg-up in the pursuit Champions League qualification; United’s disjointed performances stretch further than two reverses.
Van Gaal’s side does at least hold a touch of momentum after coasting to victory over Spurs through a trio of first half strikes. It was a performance that United must build on, says the Dutchman, if Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal are not to pull ahead in the “rat race” for third and fourth place. Not least because the Londoners and United’s cross-town rivals each won over the weekend.
“We have to confirm it against Liverpool,” said Van Gaal on Friday, “because when we can confirm it then we can show that we are there. But it is the most difficult ground for Manchester United I have heard.
“It shall last to the end and we are very close, but a win helps – it helps a lot. After a victory you need another victory to confirm what you have done. But Liverpool needs another victory after the loss against us. That was their last loss – in December – it’s unbelievable.”
United’s victory over Spurs came with yet another system, albeit one closer to a shape that suits the talent on hand. After deploying a three-man defence and diamond midfield at times this season, United’s five across midfield swamped the Londoners and offered Van Gaal’s side both strong defensive and attacking platforms on which to build.
Much to the surprise of many, Marouane Fellaini has become an part of that midfield – and a potential match-winner on Sunday. The Belgian cannot boast the technical finesse to control the tempo of United’s play nor the physicality to dominate midfield, but has proven an impactful attacking presence this season. It was Fellaini’s surprising burst of speed and clean left-footed strike gave United the lead against Tottenham last weekend.
“He has qualities that now, at this moment, he can contribute a lot,” said van Gaal of the £27 million player. “That is why he is playing. He also allows me to give balance to the team and that is important for a manager who is looking for balance. I think he has to play higher and higher up and Michael Carrick has to play deeper.
“I have said a lot of times he is a player that gives a solution for beating the pressing of the opponents. That’s also a contribution, he has more contributions but that is one of his contributions.”
The price is a style of football that is not always pleasing on the eye. Van Gaal’s side played more than 17 per cent of its passes long last weekend – more than any other side in the top seven.
On the pitch United welcome Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw back to the matchday squad, although it remains unlikely that either will start at Anfield. Meanwhile, striker Robin Van Persie began training this week, with the Dutchman at least a fortnight away from the first team.
Van Gaal could name a largely unchanged side, with both Ander Herrera and Juan Mata set to retain their places in the starting side, although Angel di Maria is available after serving a one-match suspension. In defence Daley Blind is set for another run at left-back, with Rojo and Shaw making the bench at best.
Meanwhile, the hosts welcome back Lucas Leiva for Sunday’s fixture after injury, with Mario Balotelli also available after the Italian missed last Monday’s victory over Swansea through illness.
Rodgers’ side lay 11th in the Premier League table after last December’s loss at Old Trafford, some 10 points behind United. That gap has been bridged, with victory for the home side on Sunday potentially swinging the competition for Champions League football next season with just eight games to go.
“There is still a long way to go, but there would be a psychological boost from winning this game,” said Rodgers.
“I think the psychology of being so far behind United and then clawing it back in a short period, and possibly going above United, will help the players. We had big pressure games against Tottenham, Southampton and Manchester City so we know we can cope with the pressure.”
The psychological side will be keenly felt in Van Gaal’s camp too. The Dutchman’s side bounced back decisively from FA Cup defeat to Arsenal. Should the Reds suffer a reverse in Sunday’s trip to Anfield confidence could take a more serious turn.
“The next game is the most important game – especially in this rat race, but of course I know it is our competitor too,” admits Van Gaal. “I know it is, for our fans, the enemy and it’s very important. I want to win against Liverpool again. It shall be very difficult.”
Difficult. And probably decisive.
Liverpool (3-4-2-1): Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Sakho; Sterling, Henderson, Allen, Moreno; Lallana, Coutinho; Sturridge
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Liverpool: Jones, Johnson, K Touré, Lovren, Gerrard, Lambert, Markovic, Balotelli
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, McNair, James, Shaw, Blackett, Valencia, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
Liverpool 64 – Draw 51 – United 76
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Liverpool 1-2 United
£1 bet club
1-2 @ 10/1
Running total: (-)£1.50
Join in the matchday debate on the Rant forum