The Hard Tackle takes a look at the three key battles in the Northwest Derby, as Manchester United prepare to host Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday
Manchester United vs Liverpool, also dubbed as the Northwest Derby, is a fixture that captures the imagination of football fans around the world, as the two most successful teams from England battle it out for bragging rights.
Over the last few seasons, this fixture has lost significance as far as the title race is concerned, but the battle for supremacy still remains. This time around though, both Manchester United and Liverpool are in the thick of the Premier League title race, and the match will go a long way in defining the remainder of the season for the giants.
As Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp prepare to pit their wits against each other, The Hard Tackle takes a look at the three key battles on the field that will go a long way in deciding the fortunes of the match for the two sides.
Paul Pogba vs Jordan Henderson
This was the key battle when the two sides met in the reverse fixture at Anfield earlier this season. Pogba, who was struggling to adapt to life back in England back in October, could not make much of a mark in that game as Henderson enjoyed the upper hand for large parts of the match.
This time around though, this particular battle is poised to have a different dynamic, with Pogba well settled in Jose Mourinho’s side and turning in much-improved performances for the Red Devils as the box-to-box midfielder.
Liverpool, on the other hand, will welcome Jordan Henderson with open arms on Sunday, after his absence in the stalemate against Sunderland and EFL Cup semi-final loss against Southampton showed just how much the Reds captain makes his side tick.
Jordan Henderson has the most passes and sprints, and has covered more distance than any other player in the Premier League this season. Pogba has been the midfield commander for Manchester United, spraying pinpoint cross-field long passes in attack, and transitioning from defence to attack in a jiffy.
With both the midfielders being so crucial to their side’s fortunes over the course of the season, this particular midfield battle will be the most critical in defining the outcome of the match. If Pogba manages to stifle Henderson and prevent him from having time on the ball, Manchester United can go a long way in controlling the tempo of the game.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan vs James Milner
Both of these players were faced with their own challenges at the start of the season, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and James Milner have well and truly overcome those tests with elan.
Milner, being the team man that he is, took up his role as Liverpool’s left-back after Alberto Moreno failed to impress in the early parts of the season, and despite skeptics writing him off as one of the weaker links in the Reds defence it is Milner who has stood out at the back for his side.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, on the other hand, took a long time to settle at Manchester United, and after battling with fitness issues, the Armenian has established himself as one of the regulars in Jose Mourinho’s side, and has now scored two important goals against Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland.
Mkhitaryan will look to trouble Milner with his smart change of pace and trickery and Milner – who reads the game so well – will need to be at his solid best to negotiate the threat posed by Manchester United’s creative workforce.
The Armenia international will also need to be on his guard against Milner, with the Englishman bombing the left flank for Liverpool, and will look to pin his full-back closer to his goal in order to give his side the upper hand.
Antonio Valencia vs Philippe Coutinho
From one end of the pitch to the other, and another midfielder-turned-defender will be under the spotlight as he goes up against Liverpool’s talisman Philippe Coutinho.
The Ecuador captain Valencia has been Jose Mourinho’s go-to man and has impressed everyone with his workrate, bombing up and down the right flank to be an influential contributor in attack as well as defence for Manchester United this season.
Philippe Coutinho, on the other hand, had been Liverpool’s star man this season, scoring 4 times and assisting a further 6 goals, before an untimely ankle ligament injury sidelined him for nearly two months.
The Brazilian attacking midfielder is poised to make a first start in eight games when Manchester United take on Liverpool on Sunday. He could make an instant impact from the left wing for the Reds, who will look up to him for bringing that X-Factor.
Valencia will have to be at his best to be equal to Coutinho’s threat, and he can’t afford to leave his centre-back vulnerable by bombing forward at the wrong time. Coutinho too, will have to be alert whenever his full-back charges up ahead to contribute to the United attack.
This one thus, promises to be one intriguing battle, just like the match between the two English giants.