Manchester United host Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday in a clash that is more hyped than the Carabao Cup final it precedes and both clubs will be hoping to claim three all-important points.
The Red Devils’ exceptional run of form might have hit a stumbling block in their 2-0 loss to PSG in the Champions League last week, but they got right back on track with a comfortable victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup 5th round.
Jurgen Klopp’s side meanwhile, will be looking to produce a far more clinical performance than the one they put in on Tuesday – the Reds’ lacklustre finishing meant Bayern Munich left Anfield with a truly undeserved clean sheet.
Regardless of the bitterness between the two long-time rivals, the clash is of enormous importance to both in the Premier League – United will be aiming to leave fifth placed Arsenal in the dust while Liverpool can go top of the standings.
If you’re Jurgen Klopp, who partners Virgil van Dijk in defence out of Fabinho and Joel Matip?
George: “I’d not be surprised if Fabinho actually played there because he looks a decent centre-half but, by virtue of me thinking he’s going to be in midfield, Matip starts.
“Van Dijk is the leader and Matip benefits from that, I think together they are a decent enough partnership and I’ve no issues with them going in together – nor do I if the Brazilian ended up alongside our number 4.”
Alex: “It’s a tough one because Fabinho has been performing very, very well in defence. But I’d have to say Matip. The big man is decent enough to partner alongside the league’s best centre-back and make it work – despite it being a less than ideal situation.
“Fabinho’s services will be needed in midfield as well. He performed excellently in the reverse fixture and there’s every chance he’ll be the man set up to nullify Paul Pogba.”
Indeed, former Monaco man Fabinho has impressed at the heart of defence in Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez’s stead despite being a holding midfielder by trade. Deputising for the suspended van Dijk against Bayern, the 25-year-old cut a composed figure and the timing of his tackling was exemplary.
While he may grow to be a better option at centre-half than Matip, the Reds will sorely miss Fabinho’s physical presence at the base of midfield if he does continue in defence against United. As Alex says, he will be instrumental if the Anfield outfit are to shut down the increasingly influential Pogba.
United’s victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup saw Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku deployed up front, with Juan Mata as the No.10. Is this the best trio?
Alex: “Yes and no. What United did at Chelsea was remarkable and every player had their part to play. However, there were glaring signs that Lukaku doesn’t really suit United’s new style of play under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’s no way near gifted enough technically, I think everyone can see that.
“The club now rely on rapid transitions from defence to attack, much like the old days under Sir Alex Ferguson, and if you’ve got Lukaku ballooning his touch into row-z it doesn’t really work.
“Mata on the other hand looks far better in the central role compared to when he plays right-wing. Clearly, Solskjaer has realised far quicker than Jose Mourinho that Mata’s lack of pace really doesn’t suit the position.”
George: “I don’t think it is with the way Solskjaer likes to play.
“Mata is a fantastic footballer and does well against us invariably so he might feature but all fit United probably aren’t going to use him as much under the Norwegian.
“He wants pace and directness and for me their best three are Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. Obviously, Martial and Lingard face late fitness calls but could be available and I’d say that’s their best attack.”
It has become apparent in Solskjaer’s short reign that strikers of Lukaku’s mould don’t exactly fit perfectly into the Norwegian’s system.
Instead, the sight of Rashford on the shoulder and running in behind to latch onto a Pogba pass and slot home has become a regular one – the England international’s mobility makes him far more suited to Solskjaer’s style than Lukaku but that hasn’t stopped the ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ from fitting the former Everton man into his side.
Is this Liverpool’s biggest test of the season so far considering the nervy performance against Bayern on Tuesday and United’s resurgence?
George: “No. But it’s up there, as it is any season when it’s United.
“I’d say the game at the Etihad was bigger this season – which obviously didn’t go well – and the home game against Napoli given what was riding on it – and that did go well.
“I think the Bayern result could have been far worse – if you can’t win at home in Europe don’t concede – and so I don’t think that places any more onus on us winning this one.
“It’s Manchester United against Liverpool, anyway, this is one you’ll always be up for.”
Alex: “Manchester United and Tottenham stand in the way of the one trophy Liverpool truly care about – the Premier League. It’s been nearly 30 years since they last won the title, far longer than their relatively recent Champions League success.
“It’ll be a test of bottle and skill on Sunday, and the biggest one yet, no doubt.”
Aside from a much-improved defence, the major improvement Klopp’s side has made is that they have learned how to win at all costs – see clashes against Brighton and Crystal Palace, where the Reds had to dig deep to grind out a result.
Unfortunately, that ruthlessness was lacking in their stalemate with the Bundesliga champions on Tuesday, with many players guilty of missing glorious chances to give the Reds the lead – Sadio Mane screwed wide his side’s best chance of the game as the ball fell to him in the box.
A loss to United this weekend could be disastrous for Liverpool psychologically, if not in terms of their title hopes. While it has to be said the Red Devils are a far improved team since the two sides last met, the Reds will surely accept nothing other than a win.
This game will be far more of an even contest than the 3-1 Liverpool win in December, where the Reds were dominant in midfield. Can United match or better them in the middle of the park this time?
Alex: “Liverpool’s midfield isn’t better than Manchester United’s, especially when you have Pogba dropping in there to perform some wizardry.
“Of course, they certainly had the edge on them back in December but how much of that was down to players giving up on the manager?
“You’ve got to say that the way United are pressing now isn’t much different from Klopp’s style, and the players they have in their lineup should have the technical edge on the day. Ander Herrera relishes these types of games and he’s playing incredibly at the moment. Will be the difference on the day.”
George: “They have a better chance but they’re still not as mobile.
“Paul Pogba is obviously the big difference – Liverpool don’t have a midfielder like him in terms of the goals and assists he can bring from the middle of the park and so the Reds must keep him quiet.
“Is he still disciplined in the biggest games, though? He was shown up against PSG and so he is far from infallible.
“Herrera and Nemanja Matic look to be the sitting two and they are good at what they do but players can run off them – and the likes of Gini Wijnaldum breaking lines should hopefully cause them issues.”
World Cup winner Pogba has chalked up eight goals and five assists since Solskjaer’s United revolution began and is finally looking like the player the Old Trafford outfit were expecting to get when they spent big to bring him back from Juventus.
It hasn’t been a perfectly smooth ride for the Frenchman since Mourinho’s departure, though – the 25-year-old was sent off against PSG and, in losing his temper, could cost his side again if Liverpool don’t give him the time on the ball he craves.
The Reds will likely swarm the number 6’s every touch and limit his influence on the game to the best of their ability. While the rest of the team have undergone huge transformations too, it seems that if you can stop Pogba you can more or less stop United.
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Finally, what are your score predictions?
Alex: “3-2 United.”
George: “My heart says we spark into life and outclass them, 2-0. Head says 1-1.”