Opinions are strange things. Some are parrotted and plagiarised. Some are discounted out of hand. Some change, some offer insight and some show a void where insight is missing. When Liverpool entertained United in mid December, the generally accepted opinion of most observers was that a Liverpool victory was a formality. United were dour, negative and devoid of any sort of invention or spark. Liverpool, who were still unbeaten in the League at this point, were enjoying excellent form and a feeling close to invincibility. Sunday could well be a different story for many reasons.
The importance of Sunday from a Liverpool perspective can’t be overstated. The League Cup final gives Liverpool the chance to take advantage of their game in hand and return to the Premier League summit. The remaining fixtures suggest that Old Trafford stands as the most taxing of away trips left to contest in this season. Ironically, Liverpool’s last two league wins at Old Trafford have come in seasons where Liverpool have come closest to a first Premier League title. Winning at Old Trafford often has a seminal affect on a team’s chances of winning the league. Manchester City in 2011/2012, Chelsea in 2005 and Arsenal at the start of the century all won at the Theatre of Dreams on the way to their respective league titles. Regardless of Manchester United’s status in a particular season, winning at Old Trafford counts as a statement of intent and potency in the context of a title tilt.
As I referenced in my previous preview in December, Manchester United away has historically been the fixture I most looked forward to, purely because of the potential of the euphoria that a win would bring. From Danny Murphy’s insolent request for quiet after scoring one of his Old Trafford winners, to the Dossena lob in 2009, to Gerrard’s brace of penalties in 2014, this fixture has given me some great memories. It’s also been to blame for my living room radiator getting a large amount of abuse from my otherwise untrustworthy right foot. Anthony Martial, Nani, Wes Brown and Park Ji Sung were just some of the prompters to my venting of misery when this fixture has gone against me and all others of a Liverpool persuasion. This revitalised Manchester United team are well capable of heaping more of the same on Liverpool this Sunday afternoon.
Last year’s trip to Manchester was a chastening experience for Liverpool, specifically for certain members of Liverpool’s back four. The idea of isolating and turning Trent Alexander Arnold was implemented to great affect by a Manchester United side who were relatively comfortable throughout. Much of Sunday could be decided by which team best exploit the space between centre back and full back, an area which PSG recently used effectively on their Old Trafford away day. Martial (if fit) and Rashford will relish the chance to work in these areas and Liverpool will need to have an answer ready. Van Dijk will be restored to the Liverpool defence after serving his midweek European suspension which should see the usual positive, calming and authoritative influence on the Liverpool rearguard. This being said, Nemanja Vidic apparently wouldn’t take Van Dijk ahead of United’s options in the centre of defence. Liverpool’s 14 clean sheets to United’s 6 tell a slightly different story. The game is all about opinions of course. Some opinions happen to be more wrong than others.
The midfield battle will be key as always. Klopp may favour the solidity of a three man midfield of Wijnaldum, Henderson and Fabinho, with the options of the multi-purpose Milner and forward thinking Keita to come from the bench. Keita has shown tentative signs of improvement in recent weeks, but the cauldron of Old Trafford from the start may be beyond the 24 year old at this point, especially against the excellent Pogba and the reinvigorated Herrera. This showing of form and leadership was not something which I expected to come from Herrera. See my earlier comment about opinions.
A win for United would go a long way to solidifying Solskjaer’s case for long term employment with the club in the eyes of many. A win for Liverpool would put them top and place their fate firmly in their own hands. Liverpool have often had to content themselves with attempting to derail United’s ambitions for league titles over the years while not being in contention themselves. Now, with the roles reversed, the stakes couldn’t be higher in what still stands as the biggest fixture in all of our seasons. This fixture is to be enjoyed and endured by both sides and will be telling in how both sides assess their seasons in the end. Or not. It’s just my opinion.