Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 5/4
It’s the big one this weekend, as far as Premier League rivalries go. The 20-time English champions play host to the team that has 19 titles; the six-time European champions will be making a short trip to visit the team that’s won UEFA’s elite competition three times.
On Sunday, at Old Trafford, Manchester United will face Liverpool in the ninth round of the English top flight.
Things haven’t gone too well for United this season so far, despite their supporters showing huge excitement late in the summer about having Cristiano Ronaldo back in their team after 12 years. The Portuguese superstar is doing his job, there can be no doubt about that; Ronaldo has six goals in nine appearances in all competitions so far. He has shown that he still has tremendous athletic and finishing ability at the age of 36, as well as the instinct of a poacher.
However, there have been some surprisingly poor performances and results from the team lately, and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now finds himself under serious scrutiny, despite the club still expressing strong faith in his work.
Apart from Ronaldo, United added Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane to their ranks this summer, but the former Borussia Dortmund winger is obviously still adapting to the new league and system, while the defender who came from Real Madrid is currently struggling with an injury.
The last six matches Solskjaer’s team have played yielded mostly disappointments, though there have also been a few narrow wins. The run began with the Carabao Cup exit at the hands of West Ham by 0-1 at home. It went on with the same scoreline, also at home, in the league against Aston Villa. Then came a narrow Champions League triumph over Villarreal (2-1 at home), a 1-1 draw at home against Everton, a 4-2 defeat away to Leicester City, and a fantastic comeback to edge out Atalanta at home in the Champions League by 3-2.
United are currently in sixth place with 14 points, one less than Brighton and Hove Albion in fourth and Tottenham Hotspur in fifth, and with the same tally as West Ham and Everton in seventh and eighth, respectively. They’re certainly not out of the title race at this point (Chelsea are five points ahead at the top), but it would be good for them to arrest the fall at this point.
As has been said, Raphael Varane has been struggling with an injury, a groin problem which struck him during the UEFA Nations League final, and his absence should mean Victor Lindelof starting alongside captain Harry Maguire in the heart of defence again.
Marcus Rashford recently came back to action after several months out following a shoulder surgery. He suffered a dead leg against Atalanta and faces a late fitness test ahead of Sunday, but Solskjaer believes the England international should be ready to play. It’s similar with Anthony Martial, who is currently building up his fitness.
Solskjaer put some fear into the hear of the supporters at his press conference when he said Bruno Fernandes wasn’t 100% certain to play, after suffering a ‘knock’ against Atalanta. However, the attacking midfielder won’t be missing this game if there is any chance for him to be involved at all.
David De Gea will be between the posts, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw on the defensive flanks. Things aren’t that clear in the middle of the park, though, after Solskjaer gave the Leicester defeat to Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic and replaced them with Fred and Scott McTominay against Atalanta. Upfront, Rashford will probably start if fit, and if not, Sancho would be the obvious choice to step in and flank Ronaldo together with Mason Greenwood.
Liverpool could hardly be in a more different situation than their arch-rivals. Still undefeated in any competition – the only undefeated team in the Premier League – they are looking as strong as ever and are very much in contention for every trophy on offer, and to think that many wrote them off from the title race because their only signing of the summer was Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig.
Speaking of the 22-year-old centre-back, he has only played once in the league, the full 90 minutes in the 3-0 win over Crystal Palace back in September, but manager Jurgen Klopp is known for his reluctance to throw new signing into the fray straight away; the likes of Fabinho and Andy Robertson come to mind.
There is certainly no need to rush Konate’s integration at the moment. Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip are back after missing the majority of last season, and both have mostly looked as well as ever. Kostas Tsimikas was, on the other hand, forced to step in for Robertson at the start of the campaign, and the Greece international performed admirably when called upon.
But defenders aside, the man the football world is talking about these days in Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian doesn’t look likely to stop scoring at the moment, and his goals in the last two league matches left spectators breathless. As his deflected shot flew past Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak on Tuesday, he became the first ever Liverpool player to score in nine consecutive matches in all competitions, as well the club’s all-time leading scorer in the Champions League, surpassing the iconic Steven Gerrard with his 31st strike. At Old Trafford, he has the chance to become the African player with the most goals in the history of the Premier League – he’s currently tied with Chelsea legend Didier Drogba on 104.
Ronaldo had his days – a large number of them – at the very top of the game. He and Lionel Messi dominated the scene for more than a decade and split 11 Ballon d’Or awards between them. But right now, Salah is probably the one playing at a level higher than anybody else, with 16 goal involvements (12 goals, four assists) in just 11 matches in all competitions this season.
The Merseysiders are currently second to Chelsea in the league, trailing the London Blues by one point. Their last six matches include a 0-3 win away to Norwich City in the Carabao Cup, a 3-3 league draw away to Brentford, a 1-5 thrashing of FC Porto away in the Champions League, a 2-2 draw at home against defending Premier League champions Manchester City, a 0-5 demolition of Watford at the Vicarage, and a hard-fought victory over Atletico in Madrid earlier this week.
Klopp has confirmed that Curtis Jones is back in contention after sustaining an injury while away on England U-21 duty, but his midfield options are still short of Thiago Alcantara who’s been out with a calf problem since late September, as well as Harvey Elliott. The 18-year-old will be out for a long time yet, having had surgery on an ankle dislocated in the win over Leeds United on September 12. The rest of the squad is ready to play.
There’s no real question about the defensive or the attacking part of the starting XI for this game. Alisson Becker in goal, Van Dijk and Matip in the heart of defence flanked by Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Fabinho as the shield ahead. Captain Jordan Henderson is likely to take one of the two more advanced midfield roles, with the other being up for grabs between Naby Keita, James Milner, Jones, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Upfront, Klopp is likely to reward the good form Roberto Fimino ahead of Diogo Jota, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are nailed-on starters, and most likely to cause big problems for the United defence.
Based on everything above, as well as the fact that it’s been three and a half years since United last won a league match against the Merseysiders, one would say that Liverpool are the favourites to leave Old Trafford with the three points in their bags again. However, it’s a generally accepted concept that form and table standings don’t count for much when such rivalries are concerned, unlike the support the home team are bound to get from the full stands of Old Trafford.
Still, the bookies all see an away win as the likeliest outcome, and it’s hard to disagree.
Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 5/4
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