There may be some other major players on the Premier League scene nowadays, such as financial powerhouses Chelsea and Manchester City, but Manchester United vs Liverpool remains the biggest fixture the English top flight currently has to offer.
The great North-West rivalry is set for another fiesty installment this weekend as Liverpool travel to Old Trafford and, as per usual, the vast majority of the footballing world will be watching.
There’s plenty to play for too, with United keen too cement their place in the Champions League’s top four and the Reds looking to bounce back from a disappointing result against FC Basel in midweek to get their floundering campaign back on track.
But matches of such magnitude can often be decided by who wins the individual battles so with that in mind, here’s FIVE that could decide the outcome on Sunday afternoon.
Robin van Persie’s long-term future at Manchester United was coming under question a few weeks ago but how times have changed.
Following three goals in his last three Premier League outings, the Dutch assassin is now the Red Devils’ top scorer in the league with six strikes in total.
And just in case you’d somehow forgot how deadly the 31 year-old can be, he grabbed a brace against Southampton on Monday night, viewable below, with just three efforts on goal.
This strike against Hull City a few weekends ago wasn’t too bad either:
Clearly, the Netherlands international is back to his best and enjoying the kind of form where only a half chance can lead to a world-class goal. So if the Reds are to keep a clean sheet on Sunday, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet will have to put in a top performance.
The Belgium international’s come under intense scrutiny this season and the pressure on him is really beginning to tell. Take this woeful pass against Chelsea for example:
Or this blundered save in the Champions League:
Slip ups like that just won’t do against United, especially with arguably the most clinical finisher in the Premier League lurking about.
Adding to Mignolet’s potential woes, reports claim 201 career goals in 311 appearances front-man Radamel Falcao could partner Van Persie on Sunday.
An incredibly versatile and effective attacker, it remains to be seen what capacity Brendan Rodgers will look to utilise Raheem Sterling in against Manchester United at the weekend.
But proving to be by far Liverpool’s most dynamic force going forward this season, currently topping the Reds’ charts for goals, assists, chances created per game, shots per game and dribbles per game, as detailed below:
..the Anfield gaffer would be wise to start him on the right wing against the Red Devils, where he’ll be up against make-shift left-back Ashley Young.
Luke Shaw’s currently out injured with a twisted ankle and is unlikely start on Sunday, meaning Louis van Gaal will be forced to depend on the former England winger once again.
To give credit where it’s due, Young’s hardly let down United in that capacity this season – in fact, he’s put in some very convincing performances over the last few weeks, as shown below:
But the 29 year-old isn’t a natural defender by any means and you’d expect an attacker of Sterling’s quality to exploit that weakness in United’s backline.
These two know each other well. They’ve been the industrious creators at the heart of their respective midfields for many a year – this is just one skirmish in a decade-spanning war.
Michael Carrick’s Premier League experience is vital to a United side that desperately lacks familiarity with the English top flight, especially towards their own goal, whilst Steven Gerrard is enduring talismanic status once again for Liverpool as top quality in their starting XI suddenly becomes much harder to find.
The former England duo could be in direct competition too come Sunday with the Liverpool skipper returning to a more advanced role in recent weeks, seeing him grab his first goal from open play in his last 18 against Leicester City and create a plethora of chances against Ludogorets in the Champions League, and the United mainstay likely to take his familiar position in front of the back four.
Thus, it will be Carrick’s primary duty to stop his counterpart creating whilst also instigating attacks from deep positions. There’s not much he can do about Gerrard pulling one of his wonder free kicks, such as this effort against FC Basel in midweek, out of the bag however:
So the whole team will have to keep fouls down to a minimum. It won’t be easy – the Merseysiders are currently the second-most fouled team in the Premier League:
Angel Di Maria’s missed the last few weeks with a hamstring injury but reports claim he’ll be back in the starting line-up against Liverpool on Sunday.
Good news for United but terrible news for the visitors; since arriving in the Premier League during the summer for a record-breaking £59million, the Argentine international has quickly proved himself to be one of the division’s top midfielders.
He’s been enjoying a consistent supply of assists and goals this year, as detailed below:
With the pick of the bunch undoubtedly being this superb lob against Leicester City:
Perhaps most tellingly of all, he’s fourth in the Premier League’s chances created per match rankings (represented as key passes):
With so many centre-halves out injured, it’s more than likely Louis van Gaal will revert back to his diamond formation against the Reds on Sunday, which will see Di Maria in his customary left-central capacity.
That leaves the task of stopping him largely down to Jordan Henderson. The England international is the right candidate for that role, boasting endless energy and plenty of full-blooded tackles. Lucas Leiva and Javier Manquillo are the only Liverpool players to make more challenges per match than Henderson this year:
With Ander Herrera back to fitness and United likely to change their shape somewhat against Liverpool, it remains to be seen if Marouane Fellaini will keep his first team place.
But Louis van Gaal would be wise to retain the 6 foot 5 lofty Belgium international against the Reds – their marking from set pieces has been nothing short of woeful this season, conceding 13 times from dead ball scenarios across all competitions.
Fellaini’s attritional style may not be pretty and often frustrating; his quality in possession leaves a lot to be desired. But it’s clearly effective and has gained United vital points this season, specifically against West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City.
The Liverpool team lacks height throughout which could spell real trouble on Sunday; statistically, Fellaini is the joint-third most effective aerial threat in the Premier League:
Thus, when it comes to free kicks and corners, he’ll have to be watched by closely by Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel. Not only is the Slovenian by far the Reds’ best defender in aerial situations, as shown below:
But he also offers the thuggish, hands-friendly brand of defending required to keep Fellaini quiet.