Photo: Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will both be hoping for a win when the two team meet at Anfield today. (Getty Images)
The rivalry of the ‘Reds’
The biggest fixture in the English calendar will take on even more significance today when champions Liverpool host new Premier League leaders Manchester United at Anfield. The two most successful clubs in the history of English football are separated by only three points heading into this mouth-watering Merseyside meeting.
Things have never been the same since their first meeting in 1893/94 when Manchester United (Newton Heath Boys then) finished bottom of the First Division table and went into a play-off game between Liverpool who were dominant all season in the Second Division for the right to play in the First Division the following season. Liverpool won that game 2-0 and replaced Manchester United in the First Division. This signaled the birth of Man United – Liverpool rivalry. Five years ago, January 17th Manchester United’s forward Wayne Rooney made history at Anfield as his lone strike was enough to secure a massive rivalry win for the Red Devils, and a hammer blow for Jurgen Klopp’s men as their top four finish disappeared like smoke in the thin air.
This time around the scene on Sunday will be very different; there will be no fans to witness this firecracker of a contest between these two great rivals and, even if there were, they certainly would not be making any claims that the title is already theirs.
Mohammed Salah scored for the first time against Manchester United after several tries. That victory at Anfield last time out sent Liverpool 16 points clear of second-placed Manchester City and a whopping 30 above Man United. On the flipside of things, a run of 29 points from the last 33 on offer has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side brush off a slow start to the campaign and ballooned to the top of the Premier League table, with Tuesday's 1-0 triumph over Burnley lifting them three points above the champions and Sunday's hosts. It is the first time Man United have been top after as many as 17 games of a season since Sir Alex Ferguson led them to their 20th title in 2012-13.
Both teams will be setting up differently in Sunday’s game based on what Liverpool has at their disposal and what Manchester United can do. Liverpool’s front three of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are virtually unstoppable on any given day. So far, they have scored 24 goals in the Premier League.
In contrast Manchester United boss Solskjaer heaps praise on star man Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Edinson Cavani who so far scored 21 goals between them. In addition, Manchester United are on a 15 matches away unbeaten run, while Liverpool have not lost a single game in over two and a half years at home, will something give or break on Sunday…….Only time will tell.
For all the dominant periods these two clubs have enjoyed throughout the years, they have only finished as the top two on five previous occasions, and just once in the Premier League era, 12 years ago. Ironically, Liverpool beat Manchester United home and away in that season 2008, but Manchester United edged them to another cup glory. With only four points separating first from fifth it is too early to suggest that that could be the case again this season, but if both sides are able to maintain their title charges then the reverse of this fixture at the start of May is likely to be one of the biggest Liverpool vs. Manchester United showdowns yet.
Surprisingly, Manchester United is not seen as a serious title challenger, not even at this stage and if victory is to be achieved on Sunday would still constitute an "upset" and a "shock", regardless of what the league table says.
The visitors will undoubtedly travel to Merseyside full of belief that they can come away with a statement-making win, though, having won nine and lost none of their last 11 top-flight outings stretching back to November 1. Away from home Man United have not lost in the league since that last trip to Anfield almost exactly a year ago - a run of 15 games which includes 12 victories, 11 of which have come in their last 12 such matches.
Jurgen Klopp's side have picked up two points from their last three games and could go four without a victory for the first time since February 2017, having been held by West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United before losing at Southampton last time out. Remarkably, Liverpool have never lost back-to-back league games under Klopp, last doing so in September 2015 under Brendan Rodgers when the second match in that run was a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Man United.
Klopp himself has not overseen successive league defeats since April 2015, during his time in charge of Borussia Dortmund. Since scoring seven goals from eight shots on target in their obliteration of Crystal Palace on December 19, Liverpool have since only managed seven shots on target combined from their next three games, scoring just once in the process. The Reds had scored in every league game this season prior to their back-to-back blanks against Newcastle and Southampton respectively, and they could now go three top-flight games without a goal for the first time since March 2005.
The defeat to Southampton in their last league outing also means that they have now dropped 18 points this season, which is more than what they lost across the whole of each of their previous two campaigns, and another loss on Sunday would see them begin a calendar year with consecutive league defeats for the first time since 1993. However, it is far from all doom and gloom for the champions; their recent attacking bluntness must be balanced with the fact that they are still the leading scorers in the league, while at the other end they boast the second-best defense in the top five despite playing most of the season without their two main center-backs.
Now or Never
Manchester United will have to contend with the Anfield factor, Liverpool now 67 home games unbeaten in the Premier League, winning 55 of those - and 32 of their last 34 - in a run which stretches back to April 2017. West Bromwich Albion's smash-and-grab draw in Liverpool's final home game of 2020 was only the second time they have dropped league points at Anfield in almost two years, and they have scored in each of their last 42 top-flight outings on home turf, stretching back to a goalless draw with Manchester City in October 2018. That Man City stalemate was incidentally the last time they failed to win a home game against another of the traditional 'big six' too, taking maximum points from their 11 such matches since.
Man United, by contrast, have not won any of their four meetings with the 'big six' this season and have failed to even score from open play in those games, their only goal coming from a Bruno Fernandes penalty. In addition to being a significant day in the title race and for fans of both clubs, it could also prove to be a landmark occasion for both managers, with Solskjaer looking to avoid becoming only the third Manchester United manager in history to fail to win any of their first four league meetings with Liverpool. Klopp, meanwhile, will hope to celebrate his 200th Premier League game as Liverpool boss in style; his tally of 127 wins in his first 199 games is bettered only by Jose Mourinho in Premier League history, while he already has a better win ratio than any other Liverpool boss to have reached the double-century in the top flight. The champions have since bounced back with a 4-1 FA Cup triumph against Aston Villa's youngsters to return to winning ways, but worryingly in the Premier League even their goals have seemingly dried up lately.
Injuries and availability
Klopp would not want to risk playing Jordan Henderson in defense against a potent Manchester United. It is likely that he will use Hendo in midfiled and use either Nat Phillips or Rhys Williams will fill in alongside Fabinho at centre-back rather than the skipper being called upon as an emergency option again. The pace in Manchester United's attack means that either option could be exploited, but Phillips appears to be just ahead of Williams in the running should one of them be needed. Naby Keita has been ruled out as Klopp exercises caution over the midfielder's return, while Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Diogo Jota and Kostas Tsimikas also remain sidelined. Four months after joining, Thiago Alcantara is in line to finally make his Anfield debut for Liverpool.
Manchester United also have defensive injury concerns, with Brandon Williams and Phil Jones having been ruled out and Victor Lindelof still doubtful with a back problem which has seen him miss the last three matches. The Swede could be back in contention for this one, but even so Solskjaer could choose to stick with the Harry Maguire-Eric Bailly partnership which has grown in recent outings. Anthony Martial will undergo a late fitness test after limping off against Burnley with a hamstring injury, while Nemanja Matic must also prove his fitness due to a slight groin problem. If fit, Martial could replace Edinson Cavani through the middle, which could in turn open the door for a rejuvenated Paul Pogba to move further upfield or Mason Greenwood to come into the starting XI. Fernandes is a guaranteed starter, fresh off becoming the first player in the English topflight to be named Player of the Month four times in a single calendar year. Marcus Rashford will also be hoping to extend a good recent record against Liverpool, having scored three goals in his last four league games against the Reds and earning his side four points in the process. Amad Diallo provides a new option for the visitors too, with Solskjaer refusing to rule out the prospect of the January arrival being involved on Sunday.
Prediction Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United