The beauty of the league format in football is that at the end, every result counts. So, coaches and managers insist that every match is equally important. But, perhaps even they know deep down that some clashes are a bit more important than most others. A North West derby game between Manchester United and Liverpool is even in a normal season a match of great significance for both sides. But recently, the game’s importance has been elevated by Liverpool’s rise in stature and the corresponding fall in United’s fortunes Last season, Jose Mourinho lost his job at Old Trafford after losing to Liverpool. When the two sides meet for the first time this season at Old Trafford on Sunday evening, the stakes are going to be as high, if not higher. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s continuation as United’s manager is at stake, as is Liverpool’s push for the first title since the inception of the Premier League.
While Solskjaer tried to exude confidence when he called this match “the perfect game” to motivate his struggling side, it is clear that his team is not at the same level as the visitors. Not only are they severely underperforming their archrivals (15 points behind after just 8 games), the squad is also plagued by injuries to key players like De Gea and Pogba. United’s only win in last five games in all competitions has been a penalty shootout victory against Rochdale in the League Cup. In the league, they are struggling to score more than once a game. Solskjaer would have definitely used the international break to strategize to stop the Liverpool juggernaut and he has stopped them from winning when Liverpool visited Old Trafford last. But, whether the preparation is enough or not depends on how badly Liverpool perform vis-à-vis their potential.
And if Jurgen Klopp is to be believed, his side are not in a mood to relent just yet. Yes, just before the international break, they had two big scares as their win against Red Bull Salzburg almost felt like a defeat, while against Leicester City, the Reds needed a injury time penalty to win. But we have seen in the past that just when Liverpool show signs of weakness, they tend to storm back with big wins, especially against archrivals like United. Klopp has a far more talented squad, who are plagued with fewer injuries, and are in pretty good form. They also have United’s noisy neighbors snapping at their heel and cannot really afford to drop points. Klopp will hope that these factors will be enough to give his side a record 18th straight win in the league.
- Although their recent form is dodgy, Man Utd are unbeaten in their last five home league meetings with Liverpool, their longest unbeaten run at home against the Red since March 2000.
- Liverpool are just one win away from equaling the all-time English top-flight record of 18 consecutive wins, currently held by Manchester City who won 18 consecutive league games between August and December 2017.
- Mourinho’s defensive tactics against Klopp, which were also followed by Solskjaer in February have resulted in four draws in last six Premier League meetings between the two sides. Before the run of these six games, these two teams played out only 4 draws in 36 previous games.
- Since beating Chelsea 4-0 on the opening game week, Man Utd have failed to score more than once in any of their last 10 games in all competitions. It is their longest run of failing to score more than once since a run of 13 between May and September 2007.
- In the same vein of repeating unwanted history, Manchester United have already lost one home league game this season. If they lose on Sunday, they would have lost their second home game in the five opening games, for the first time since 1990-91.
In the really low-scoring Man Utd team (9 goals in 8 games), Marcus Rashford is the player that has contributed the most number of goals (5, scored 3, assisted 2). His xG90 and xA90 are 0.57 and 0.06, which means that the probability of his contributing a goal in 90 minutes is almost 63%. He also likes to score against other Big Six sides as he has scored 33% (10) of his Premier League goals against such sides, averaging a goal every 208 minutes against the Big Six, compared to a goal every 266 minutes against the rest.
Liverpool got a scare in the Leicester game just before the start of the international break as Salah got an ankle injury. However, the Egyptian seems to be fit for the derby on Sunday. His goalscoring credentials are never in doubt but he is yet to score or assist a single goal against United (4 appearances). They are the only side he has faced more than once while failing to contribute a single goal. He will want to change that on Sunday and will be aided by his xG90 of 0.64 and xA90 of 0.18, which mean that if he plays 90 minutes, he has almost 80% chance of contributing a goal.
For United, goalkeeper David de Gea has a groin problem and is not expected to play, while midfielder Paul Pogba is out with an ankle injury. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw will be assessed, while Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones, Diogo Dalot and Mason Greenwood are also doubts. The likely lineup for the Red Devils – Romero; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; McTominay, Pogba; Pereira, Mata, James; Rashford.
For Liverpool, the big news is that Alisson is fit to play at Old Trafford on Sunday and he just might. Joel Matip who missed out on the Salzburg and Leicester games is also fit and is further buoyed by a new long-term deal that he signed on Friday. The likely lineup for Liverpool could be – Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Fabinho, Henderson, Wijnaldum; Salah, Mane, Firmino.
History has come a full circle with a mid-table Manchester United again trying to knock Liverpool off their perch. To be fair, the Reds have not yet attained the perch they were knocked off from by their hosts but it is fair to say that a loss here can dent Liverpool’s chances of winning the league title quite significantly. This in itself would be incentive enough for Jurgen Klopp’s men to fight hard for victory and lately that fight has yielded them 3 points, despite poor performances on the pitch. We can expect a hard-fought match on Sunday but Liverpool are going to be the likely winners.
Manchester United 1 – 2 Liverpool