Manchester United vs. Liverpool: Preview

Michael Regan

A preview of Sunday's North-West derby between Manchester United and Liverpool at the 'Theatre of Dreams': team news, form guide, projected lineups, tactical keys, TV info, referee appointment, and odds.

Another North-West derby. Another contentious affair. Another probable dull encounter for the neutral football fan. Another soap opera. Another tense meeting that tends to provide a plethora of easy narratives for journalists. Football's grand rivalries are so romantic, aren't they?

This is the second match this season between Manchester United and Liverpool: during the reverse fixture in September at Anfield, the Red Devils were outplayed early in the match but after Jonjo Shelvey was sent off in the 39th minute for launching himself at Jonny Evans, the away side took control and emerged victorious by a 2-1 scoreline. United got second-half goals from Rafael and Robin van Persie that day.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Form Guide: United enter the weekend unbeaten in their past ten domestic matches and top of the Premier League table with a seven-point advantage over nearest title-contending rival Manchester City. Sir Alex Ferguson's side has accumulated 52 league points thus far from 21 matches. In cup competitions, a two-legged with Real Madrid in February currently awaits them in Europe as does a FA Cup replay at the midweek against West Ham United.

Team News: Wayne Rooney is the only player expected to be unavailable. Phil Jones, though, is rumored to be dealing with a minor knock. (Full Team News Report)

LIVERPOOL

Form Guide: Liverpool enter the weekend 8th in the table with with 31 points from 21 matches. Their form has been inconsistent as a whole this season but they've won five of their past seven league matches. They might be in the Europa League or something but nobody really cares about that.

Team News: Fabio Borini, Jose Enrique, and Martin Kelly are all out.

PROJECTING LINEUPS

United: It has been nothing but David de Gea in goal as of late and there seems to be no reason to change it up for this game. The back four protecting him is likely to be Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Rafael, and Patrice Evra -- although the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones are certainly in contention.

In midfield, Michael Carrick is a given and he'll likely be partnered by either Tom Cleverley, Paul Scholes, or Ryan Giggs. Out wide, Antonio Valencia seems certain on the right but Nani is possible for a surprise start. On the left, the Portuguese winger is in contention there too but Giggs or Ashley Young are more likely. It would be far from shocking if the Welshman starts because Ferguson tends to trust his guile in these tricky affairs.

Robin van Persie will be the first name on the team sheet and he'll probably be partnered by either Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) or Shinji Kagawa.

Liverpool: Pepe Reina is Liverpool's No.1 and in front of him will be Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger in central-defense. With Enrique injured, Glen Johnson is probable to deputise at left-back but Stewart Downing is possible as well. Either Johnson or Andre Wisdom will start at right-back.

In central-midifeld, the trio of Lucas Leiva, Steven Gerrard, and Jordan Henderson have been preferred as of late but Jonjo Shelvey and Joe Allen are also in contention.

In attack, Luis Suarez will feature but where is not entirely certain. He could lead the line as he has nearly all season in a central role or he could be moved out wide in order to accommodate the newly signed Daniel Sturridge. Downing, Raheem Sterling, and Suso are also in contention for wide roles in attack.

TACTICS

* What will United's approach be?: We know what Liverpool's general approach will be: it'll be possession-based with short-passing and movement in a 4-3-3 shape. Rodgers, though, has shown a willingness in recent months to be a bit more direct when he sees it fit.

United have two options: they can either (1) engage Liverpool in a battle for midfield control or they can (2) concede the midfield battle and instead look to hit their rivals on the break. The latter is the approach they took at Anfield in September.

As previously mentioned, United were outplayed during the reverse fixture in the first-half and things really only began to change when Shelvey was sent off. Ferguson seemed content with with a 3 v 2 disadvantage in midfield as he instructed Kagawa to push high near van Persie so that the playmaker could ignite counterattacks. In theory, this can be a sound plan but it didn't work for United that day. Kagawa was hardly involved and with Suarez dropping deep into midfield at times, United were often at a 4 v 2 disadvantage in the center of the park and they were completely overrun. Control was only established when Scholes came on a substitute versus a ten-man Liverpool side.

Despite this initial failure at Anfield, it's very possible that Ferguson takes a conservative approach again. Thus far this season, a counterattacking 4-4-1-1 has been his go-to 'big game' system. United have been more successful, though, in this system when it's Rooney playing in behind van Persie. Kagawa thrived in this role for Borussia Dortmund, especially when the German champions were on quick transitions, but he's yet to for United so far.

If United want to engage in a possession battle, then they're likely going to need to start with three central-midfielders. This isn't a shape or approach they've used much this season so this strategy could lead to a dull and cagey stalemate. If United want to be active in attack and create chances with high energy football, they may need to do it in a counterattacking system while pressing high up the pitch.

* Will Sturridge start? If so, what's the overall effect on Liverpool?: Sturridge is Liverpool's marquee January signing and Rodgers has already talked about moving Suarez away from his typical center-forward's role in order to accommodate the England international. Sturridge has only had time to feature for Liverpool against non Football League side Mansfield Town so will Rodgers trust him enough to throw him into the fire at Old Trafford for this rivalry clash? If Sturridge does start, then that means the in-form Suarez is moved either to a wide forward's role or perhaps in behind the Englishman in a 4-2-3-1ish sytem. This would obviously be a shake-up from what Liverpool is familiar with.

* Suarez's movement: No matter where Suarez features, he's a threat due to his unpredictable movement and extraordinary technique. If he starts out in a No.9's role, then he'll continually drop deep and United's central-defenders will be wary not to be drawn out of position so that gaps aren't created in behind the Uruguayan. When Suarez drops deep to collect the ball, and if a defender follows him, he often looks to thread passes through the opposition defense for a wide forward making a diagonal run towards goal.

If Suarez is deployed out wide, then he'll undoubtedly drift all around the pitch and it'll be tricky for United to sort out who is supposed to be marking him. Wherever the Uruguayan drifts to, he'll be in search of open space and overloads could be created in that part of the pitch. United could, though, make United pay for this by counterattacking down the flank Suarez is supposed to be on -- this could create 2 v 1 advantages out wide.

KO: 1:30pm GMT, 8:30am EST | Old Trafford

Live TV: Sky Sports 1 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)

Referee: Howard Webb

Odds: Manchester United 5/6, Draw 13/5, Liverpool 16/5

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