14 December 2014 1330 hours UTC
Old Trafford, Manchester
The holiday season is upon us and the benevolent Gods of football have bestowed upon us a game that is steeped in the history of a storied rivalry. Manchester United vs Liverpool, the doyens of English football take the field on Sunday. Both clubs are giants of the game and no treatise on English football history (or European football history, for that matter) would be complete without at least a mention of both these clubs and yet history is past. Today, both the clubs are ensconced in a battle for a Top 4 slot that would ensure Champions League football at their hallowed grounds next year. United, by virtue of finishing only 7th best in the league last year, missed European football altogether at Old Trafford while Liverpool, who saw the return of Champions League football to Anfield after a gap of five years, were unceremoniously dumped out of the group stage of the competition and back into Europa league just months later on the back of a forgettable performance at home against Basel mid-week. So instead of a summit clash that has been more common in the combined history of these two clubs, Sunday will pit them in what may be called a mid table clash where neither club can afford to drop points.
Team News and Tactics
Manchester United are having a very strange season. The appointment of Louis van Gaal at the start of the campaign and a massive summer spending spree to bring in big name players was supposed to propel them back to the top. That has not happened. United have been inconsistent in their play, often going off the boil even during the duration of a match. This has shown in their results too – whether it be losing a game after a 3 goal lead to Leicester, sinking 0-4 to Third Division side MK Dons, sharing points with Chelsea or actually beating Arsenal. However, on the back of recent results, the general trend of the team’s form is upwards. United are perched at the third position of the league table, albeit precariously with West Ham and last week’s opponents Southampton both within striking distance. The Red Devils have however managed to string together 5 consecutive wins, a feat unprecedented since Sir Alex Ferguson vacated the manager’s post. United were pretty pedestrian, especially in the first half, against a Southampton side that was looking to attack them but as champion sides do, they managed to keep their noses just ahead when the referee blew for full time. That and given their history with Liverpool should galvanise the players into putting in a better performance than what they did last weekend.
David de Gea is definitely the first name to go onto the team sheet and is the only United player to have started all games hitherto that the club have played in the league. Van Gaal doesn’t need to fix what’s not broken so de Gea will start in goal. Ahead of him though, the problems begin. United’s season has been practically riddled with injuries. Every single game throws a new injury for van Gaal and his managerial staff to deal with. The Southampton game removed Chris Smalling from the available list. The defender pulled up with a niggle early in the first half and had to be removed immediately and is unlikely to participate against Liverpool. Phil Jones, after an impressive start to the season, is still recovering from shin splints and Johnny Evans has completed his return from injury but looked shaky after being put in for Smalling. Louis van Gaal also experimented with his 3-5-2 formation again with spectacularly poor results. Poor Paddy McNair was pulled around by the multi pronged Southampton attack and more than one made clearances that only increased the danger on goal. Van Gaal would do well to go back to a defensive back four wherein the players have looked much more settled and organised. With Rafael’s availability unclear and Luke Shaw also out for a week more, it seems that Paddy McNair would start the game alongside Marcos Rojo in central defense with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young minding the shop on the right and left flanks respectively.
Michael Carrick’s return to the first team has lent a lot of solidarity and stability to United’s midfield play. Carrick seems to be the only United player completely keyed into van Gaal’s philosophy of possession football and his role as a shield for the defense is crucial if United want to kill Liverpool attacks especially those originated by Lallana or Sterling. This becomes even more critical when we consider that Daley Blind is still some way off from first team football. Another player who has revived and improved tremendously under van Gaal and deserves to start is Fellaini. While the Belgian was ineffective in the Southampton game, he has done enough in games against Chelsea, Arsenal and City to deserve a starting spot in central midfield. His added physicality will be an advantage when dealing with a flagging Steven Gerrard as well. Angel di Maria is still injured and will probably miss the Liverpool game as well. The best replacement for the Argentinian player seems to be Ander Herrera. The Spaniard has shown maturity beyond his years whenever he has played and deserves to get a chance to start a game on the right wing. It is unlikely van Gaal would do this, but given the current set of available players, Mata can then be played on the left and Rooney centrally to feed to van Persie as the lone striker.
Liverpool are weak on the left flank and in central midfield. Fellaini can be used to overload central midfield and the box to provide an additional body off crosses and set pieces. Rooney dropping slightly deeper to link play will work well for the captain since he has lost some pace and may find it difficult to take on the entire defense based only on speed. It will also allow him to link up play between Fellaini, Mata and Herrera who have previously also played an attacking triangle effectively. A more mobile positioning also allows Rooney to become the second striker when United mount one of their trademark counter attacks. Robin van Persie would be on a high from his brace at St. Mary’s and should be allowed to ping the goal as many times as possible in this formation.
Probable XI (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Young, Rojo, McNair, Valencia; Fellaini, Carrick; Mata, Rooney, Herrera; van Persie
Liverpool are sitting in 9th place on the table and after their recent ouster from the Champions League, can ill afford a loss at Old Trafford. The United homestead is never an easy place to travel to, more so for Liverpool, given the history between the two clubs. Brendan Rodgers can surely feel the walls closing around him and while Liverpool management has clarified that Rodgers’ job is not under threat, it would not be unprecedented if he were sacked a few months later.
Simon Mignolet has come under a lot of criticism for his goalkeeping over the past few weeks but he is Liverpool’s best bet between the sticks and is fully expected to start as No. 1. In front of him, both Toure and Skrtel have been putting in a solid shift for the last few weeks and should retain their spot in the starting lineup. Jose Enrique’s career at Liverpool seems to be firmly behind him and the same was visible when he was hooked out of the game against Basel at half time and substituted by Moreno. Rodgers should not experiment anymore and allow Moreno to start at left back. Glen Johnson is a mercurial character at right back. One never knows which Johnson will turn up for the game – the attacking, marauding wing back or the doddering, erratic defender. Yet, Liverpool must take this gamble and start him at right back ahead of Manquillo.
Steven Gerrard has been a faithful servant for the Merseyside club and is still their most influential player. His dedication to the club cannot be questioned but the captain’s age is catching up. He is slower on the pitch and his lack of speed tends to expose his defense but that still seems to be a small price to pay for the skill on the ball and the set piece ability that he brings to the table. He will not want to sit on the bench in this most storied of rivalries and neither should he be made to. Gerrard and Lucas will start in midfield. Lucas can provide some amount of cover to the defense while Gerrard can play in a more forward role to feed his attackers. Raheem Sterling has been a mainstay of Liverpool this season and automatically selects himself into starting lineup. It may be a wise move to play Phillipe Coutinho on the wings given his speed and skill on the ball. The link up between Coutinho and Sterling can stretch an already doddering United defensive line out of shape and create the opening required to get a shot off on goal. Even if they are unable to get off a shot at goal, winning a free kick on the edge of the box can be equally effective given Gerrard’s prodigious skill from set pieces. Lallana is set to return from injury and will be a valuable addition to the starting lineup. If however Rodgers does not want to expose Lallana too soon, he also has Lazar Markovic at his disposal to play on the opposite wing. With Sturridge still in recovery and Mario Balotelli being an abject failure, Lambert may again be handed the job of heading up the attack against United.
A 0-3 defeat to Liverpool in the same fixture in March early this year probably proved to be the catalyst to David Moyes’ downfall. The tables could well be turned this time as fans and management alike may not take kindly to a loss at Old Trafford so close to their ouster from the Champions League.
Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Moreno, Skrtel, Toure, Johnson; Lucas, Gerrard; Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana; Lambert
- Robin van Persie has scored 6 goals in his last 9 league appearances against Liverpool
- Steven Gerrard has scored the most number of goals (5) by an away player at Old Trafford
- Only Chelsea (6) have won more matches than Liverpool(5) at Old Trafford since the inception of the Premier League
Player to watch out for
Robin van Persie
Louis van Gaal has reposed tremendous faith in his Dutch frontman choosing to start him in spite of no goals from the latter. Van Persie is slowly repaying this faith with a far better showing in the last couple of games. He even scored a brace against Southampton that showcased that he is far from spent as a striker. Van Persie is the kind of striker who can hold up the ball and still, in a split second, put the ball into the back of the net. Liverpool would be wary of his dreaded left foot and Skrtel and Toure will have their task cut out to prevent Rooney and co from putting the ball on the Dutchman’s favoured left foot.
Manchester United: LWWWWW
Manchester United 2 – 1 Liverpool
The game between United and Liverpool will not be decided by who plays better football but by who makes the fewer mistakes, given the error prone nature of their game so far this season. Riding on a five match winning spree and with the home crowd cheering them on, expect Manchester United to secure their sixth win in as many matches.
Blast from the past
Liverpool played United at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day in 1989. The match remained a tightly contested one till John Barnes broke the deadlock and scored for Liverpool in the 70th minute. What followed was a typical United late resurgence as the hosts struck back thrice in the space of 20 odd minutes through Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Russell Beardsmore.