On Sunday Manchester United will meet Liverpool for the 201st time under very different circumstances. Both may have qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League, but with contrasting moods. Valencia comfortably held off a limp display from United, while Liverpool squeezed through by the finest of margins against Napoli. Domestically, Liverpool sit on top of the table as the Premier League’s only unbeaten side. Jose Mourinho may have overseen a four-goal thrashing of Fulham to reach sixth, but it was their first win in five league games.
Mourinho is famous for loving history and statistics, and they both favour his side in this instance. He has never lost to Jurgen Klopp in the league, and he is sure to trumpet that in the build up. Both sides have extensive injury problems, especially in defence. Liverpool will be without Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, meaning Dejan Lovren is likely to start. United are without the impressive Diogo Dalot, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling.
Our team sat down to discuss the mood ahead of the bitterest fixture on the schedule, and offer analysis.
Are there any positives we can take from United’s recent form?
Jamie Brackpool: I really, really don’t see many. In our last six games we have only won two games, and that was against Young Boys and Fulham. Perhaps the only glimmer of hope was a promising performance against Arsenal, in which where we gifted the Gunners a point via a rare goalkeeping error and an own goal.
Andrew Flint: For me the biggest positive has been the run in the team of Marcus Rashford. It is clutching at straws really, because it looks like his relationship with Mourinho is far from smoothed over, but I’ll take it. His role will be very important as it looks like Anthony Martial will be missing through injury. I discount the 4-1 against Fulham as even for our dreadfully under-performing side it was a simple match. I’m not sure quite how, but rising to sixth despite picking up just six points from a possible 18 is an achievement in itself.
Rodney McCain: Yes, the big plus is the appetite and enthusiasm being shown by several of the home-grown members of the squad, particularly Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. Unfortunately, not everyone in a United shirt has visibly replicated this example during this time of adversity, and that is hugely disappointing for the fans to see because 100% effort and commitment should be the minimum requirement for any Manchester United player.
Krishnendu Sanyal: Yes, actually there are a few positives. Manchester United players have bothered to turn up in big games. Results and performances against Chelsea, Juventus and Arsenal have largely been positives. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Jose Mourinho’s men get something from their trip to Anfield on Sunday.
Will Mourinho pick Lukaku and Pogba? Should he?
JB: Well, it really depends on who else features in the starting lineup. Pogba lost possession seven times against Valencia and a shocking 14 times against Southampton. If Jose wants to play the World Cup winner, he must give him a role further up the pitch with coverage behind, to reduce the liability factor.
Lukaku, on the other hand, has had only seven shots in his last three starts, and only 14 touches inside the 18-yard-box. He has also only attempted five dribbles in those games, only one of which was inside the opposition’s box. If Jose plans on using the Belgian, he’d better have a plan to get him the ball inside the box.
AF: Lukaku will almost certainly start unfortunately, now that Martial is highly doubtful. It is beyond a joke how much weight he has gained, and how appalling his touch is. If his role is to occupy defenders, he must be able to hold onto the ball. At the moment, he looks like having a better chance of holding onto Brexit negotiations. Two goals in 10 appearances is poor.
As for Pogba, he doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near the first team. For right or wrong, he is clearly completely disinterested in playing. He is a liability given his profligacy in possession, and I suspect Mourinho might not play him.
RM: No. I can’t see how he can justify selecting Lukaku ahead of Rashford right now. The young Mancunian is showing a determination and work-rate that seems sadly lacking from the Belgian. Being out of form is one thing; not appearing fit or concerned with applying yourself is another matter entirely.
Pogba is a conundrum. He is certainly our best technical player, but it is baffling how a player with such wonderful ability can fail to control a game from midfield so often. He isn’t the player we hoped he’d become, though I’d still play him at Anfield.
KS: On the basis of his performance against Valencia, Paul Pogba should not even make the bench. Mourinho could go with Lukaku as he could want a target man up front in what is expected to be a defensive system against Liverpool. Should the duo be picked? No, they are currently dragging the team down.
Which one-on-one player battle are you looking forward to watching?
JB: The last time Manchester United played Liverpool in a competitive competition, the Red Devils won 2-1. After the game, Ashley Young was praised for masterfully keeping Mohamed Salah in his back pocket. While the Egyptian made 42 touches over the course of the match, he lost the ball 11 times and only managed to complete one dribble and one shot.
But does a performance seven months ago guarantee Young a spot over Luke Shaw, who has shone so far this season? There are concerns over whether or not Shaw will be fit enough to play, but if he is, it presents a difficult choice for the Portuguese boss. I will be very interested to see who Jose goes with, and how that player fares against an in form Salah.
AF: The famed attacking trio up front for Liverpool are going to be key. Or at least handling them will be, and that’s where I am worried. Phil Jones is going to face one of the most intelligent forwards in world football in Roberto Firmino. That should in theory be a total mismatch.
However, the Brazilian has looked almost a bit tired recently, and has only been involved in three goals in his last 10 games. It is a monumental task for Jones to recover from his embarrassing performance midweek. Summoning the spirit of Nemanja Vidic successfully could decide this one.
RM: It had been Trent Alexander-Arnold against Anthony Martial on our left side, but the young Liverpool full-back may miss out now with injury. Who even knows what side Mourinho will pick?!. The England kid is a great prospect for the future, but I was hoping to see Tony show him that he still has a few things to learn before he can stop our French wizard from having a big impact on a Liverpool vs United game!
KS: Marcus Rashford against Trent Alexander-Arnold. The Manchester United striker had the young full-back in all sorts of trouble at Old Trafford. Alexander-Arnold struggled to keep pace with the forward and lost his man when Rashford found the back of the net in a 2-1 win for the home side. It seems like a long time ago at the moment.
Is there any hope of United winning?
JB: Is there any hope of winning? In there last four games, Liverpool have scored nine goals and only conceded once. In United’s last four games, we have scored 10 – well, 12 if you count goals that we’ve scored on ourselves – but conceded six. While we aren’t shy of scoring goals, we are going into a match against one of the best attacking trios in Europe with a below average defence. We are traveling to one of the toughest stadiums in the world to play at and have both demoralized fans and players. So, is there any hope of winning? Absolutely – we’re Manchester United.
AF: I’ve read about the five stages of grief, and received wisdom dictates that acceptance is the final stage. Grief may be a strong word to use, but the club has died inside in recent years. I will never reach acceptance of the disgraceful mediocrity served up under Mourinho, but there is hope. Just when the Champions League campaign looked like going off the rails, Juventus were outwitted. Arsenal hit top form? United come out all guns blazing. However much Mourinho may try and destroy the soul of the club, this is Liverpool, so of course there’s hope. If that’s what kills me, then so be it.
RM: Yes, but it’s as slim a hope as I can ever remember going to Anfield. Mourinho will ‘park the bus’. That may not be the worst tactic against this fluent Liverpool attack, but I simply don’t think we are good enough to muzzle Salah & co. for 90 minutes. It’s hard to see United having the cutting edge required to hurt the hosts on swift counter-attacks, as our midfield is too slow getting out to support what will probably be a lone frontman in (hopefully) Rashford.
KS: Manchester United fans have some terrible memories of visits to Anfield. We have seen the likes of Andrea Dossena and David N’Gog score winning goals, and this was when we were winning everything else. I wouldn’t back this current lot to beat Liverpool in my most fabulous dream. But would you count out a Jose Mourinho said in a one-off encounter? I wouldn’t. Mourinho is yet to lose to Liverpool as a Manchester United manager. His record read three draws and a win in four games. But don’t go into Sunday hoping for a result.