The Premier League’s last remaining unbeaten side this season, Liverpool, play host to their bitter rivals Manchester United at Anfield this weekend.
Whilst Jurgen Klopp’s Reds are flying high at the top of the table, Jose Mourinho’s side have endured a campaign to forget so far. Before a ball has even been kicked in matchweek 17, the Red Devils already find themselves eight points off the Champions League qualification places, and trailing the leaders and their next opponents by sixteen points.
However, United have been improved in their last two league outings – against Arsenal and Fulham – and big rivalry clashes such as the upcoming visit to Liverpool are the occasions Mourinho thrives upon. If the Reds are to keep their unbeaten run going, it won’t be a walk in the park.
This week’s expert, Football FanCast writer and Liverpool fan Greg Potts, shares his thoughts and predictions ahead of the Sunday 16:00 kick-off…
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Given the drastic disparity in each club’s recent fortunes, and the fact that Liverpool have a home advantage, Mourinho will know that his side are heading into this one as underdogs.
It is when cast in such a role that we usually see the best of the Portuguese boss’ sides though; when they have their backs against the wall and dogged determinism and diligence is the name of the game.
How do you expect Jose Mourinho to approach this weekend’s clash at Anfield?
Greg: “I can’t see United coming to Anfield and setting up in any other manner than to keep men behind the ball and frustrate the home side.
“Mourinho relishes the chance to set his side up in defensive formations and I think that’s actually when his teams are at their best. There’s no doubt that they’ll be difficult for Liverpool to break down and ultimately to beat, especially as United will want to bounce back from their poor showing in midweek.
“Rather than something Mourinho has done, I think one of the main reasons for their improvement has to be the form of Marcus Rashford. He has been immense in recent weeks and he will be the main threat on the counter-attack.”
The Red Devils certainly pose a threat, and at their best they are good enough to compete with anyone. However, Liverpool will be coming into this fixture full of confidence as a result of their long unbeaten run in the Premier League.
Such runs can fuel sides onto even greater achievements, and Klopp’s team will need such motivation and momentum if they’re to sustain their challenge to Manchester City’s title until the very end of the season.
Liverpool remain the only unbeaten team in the Premier League, how important is it to keep that run going?
Greg: “In terms of the title race it’s vital that Liverpool keep that going. Although City’s run obviously ended last week, they won’t drop many points this season and if the Reds are to be in contention come the end of the year then this Christmas period is crucial.
“If we’re talking about mentality though I don’t think that first loss is going to break Liverpool when it eventually does come. Klopp seems to have instilled a great team spirit this season, which has been evident in the way his side have been able to grind out wins – something that United used to pride themselves on.
“You can see from the post-game celebrations that all the Liverpool players are enjoying playing for the club this season, and that could be especially crucial this weekend.
While this match will be decided by the 22 men on the pitch, this clash also represents a battle of wills between the two managers.
Klopp and Mourinho may have very opposing styles and mannerisms, but they’re both extremely successful coaches who know how to win. Their tactical duel ought to make for a fascinating watch.
Do the Red Devils have any particular flaws that you think Jurgen Klopp should look to exploit?
Greg: “Surprisingly, Liverpool have scored the second-most goals from set-pieces so far this season in the Premier League, so the Reds will be hoping to use this to their advantage on Sunday.
“This could be particularly pertinent as United have actually conceded six goals from set-pieces, and only five teams in the league have conceded more than that so far despite the height of the Red Devils.
“A couple of early deliveries into the box from Liverpool could create panic in the United defence, and David de Gea has hardly been on top form recently either.”
What particular threats do the visitors pose that Liverpool must be wary of and what can Klopp do to address these frailties?
Greg: “There’s no doubt that United will be dangerous on the counter-attack at Anfield. Being away from home allows Mourinho to justify playing that way, and the pace in their ranks will test Liverpool if they throw men forward.
“Romelu Lukaku has not had a good start to the season, but a performance similar to his one against Brazil for Belgium in the World Cup would make it an extremely difficult afternoon for the Scouse side.
“There isn’t too much Klopp can do in reply to this as it all depends on individual attitude, but the German will be keen to ensure that his players are not complacent heading into the clash.”
These old rivals rarely produce anything other a than a hard-fought and hotly contested encounter. Often, the difference between triumph and loss comes down to a single moment, be it an instance of individual brilliance or a moment of error for which one team are ruthlessly punished.
Where will this game be lost and won?
Greg: “Based on the injury problems that both managers seem to have been hit with this week, the two defences will be crucial in this game.
“Klopp only has two fit centre-backs, so Dejan Lovren will come in to start alongside Virgil van Dijk. Don’t be surprised then to see Lukaku pull onto the Croatian in order to get himself a bit more space and the possibility to force a mistake.
“Mourinho though has also had a number of niggling injuries that will require late fitness tests before kick-off, meaning he may not be able to drill his starting back-four as he would want to.”
Finally, Greg, it’s time to make your call…
Greg: I think it’ll be a tight game as usual when these two meet, but I think Liverpool will just edge it with a 1-0 win.