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MATCH PREVIEW: Manchester United vs. Liverpool FC

He's baaaack....
He's baaaack....

They meet again. This time at Old Trafford. Old foes -- Manchester United and Liverpool FC -- will clash on Saturday afternoon in a Premier League tie and they will involve themselves again in a heated rivalry whose intensity has become white hot once more. Prior to last season, the two North West clubs were deadlocked on 18 league titles apiece in England's top-flight. However, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson finally knocked Liverpool off their perch when the champions captured their record 19th title last May. The rivalry continued to flare up when Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was recently suspended eight-matches for racially abusing Patrice Evra during a league encounter in October -- one that resulted in a 1-1 stalemate. Suarez returned to action this past Monday at Anfield in a match versus Tottenham Hotspur. The Uruguayan was not available two weekends ago when Liverpool knocked United out of the FA Cup in a Round 4 tie at Anfield.


Form Guide: United come into the match having earned 55 points thus far through 24 matches -- that has the club 2nd in the Premier League table as they trail 'noisy neighbour' Manchester City by two points. The Red Devils earned three successive league victories prior their thrilling 3-3 draw with Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge last weekend -- a match that United leveled after once trailing by three goals. The only other competition that the club is still involved in is the Europa League: United will face Dutch side Ajax on Thursday for the first match of a two-legged tie in the first round of that's competition's knock-out stages.

Team News: Injuries continue to hinder Fergie's side. Captain Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Anders Lindegaard, and Michael Owen are all out for this match while the availability of Nani, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley, and Anderson is in doubt. Chris Smalling's availability is unknown as well and Rio Ferdinand's persistent back issue is always a concern. A full team news report will be available here on TBB after Fergie's press conference on Friday morning.

*Update* -- According to Fergie during his Friday press-conference, Cleverley will be available for Liverpool. Jones is out for this match but he could feature versus Ajax at the midweek while Smalling may be available (Full Manchester United Team News Report).


Form Guide: Kenny Dalglish's side have earned 39 points this season so far from 24 matches -- this has them sitting 7th in the table and four points shy of fourth place Chelsea -- a coveted spot for a proud club that has failed to participate in the UEFA Champions League for 2 entire seasons now. Liverpool have only earned one league victory since the new year began. However, Saturday's visitors are doing well in their domestic cup competitions. Liverpool will travel to Wembley at the end of February to face Championship side Cardiff City in the Carling Cup final and they have also earned passage to the FA Cup's 5th round after defeating United in 4th round.

Team News: Liverpool have a relatively clean bill of health. While influential holding-midfielder Lucas Leiva is out for the season with an ACL injury, no other player has been ruled out for this match at the time of this preview being published. Jose Enrique is considered a doubt though as the left-back missed Liverpool's previous match versus Spurs.


United: The injuries in United's defense simplifies their selection choice options. The injury to Lindegaard means that David De Gea is the unquestioned No. 1 for the moment. Due to the injury doubts of Smalling and Jones, Jonny Evans is almost certain to start at center-back while Ferdinand is likely to be chosen also if all is well with his back. This also probably means Rafael at right-back. Patrice Evra is the automatic choice at left-back for Fergie when fit.

In United's two matches with Liverpool this season, Fergie has elected to use three central-midfielders during those ties at Anfield. However, with the likely inclusion of the industrious Wayne Rooney in this match -- who did not feature in either one of those clashes this season -- Fergie may feel comfortable enough with two players in the center of the park at Old Trafford because of Wazza's willingness to track back on the opposition's deepest-lying midfielder. Michael Carrick has been the backbone of United's midfield in recent months and he likely will be partnered by either Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs.

In attack, Rooney will likely play in a withdrawn role to either Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) or Danny Welbeck. Rooney is also more than capable playing as a lone striker if Fergie decides to use a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. Out wide, the in-form Antonio Valencia is probable on the right flank while Park Ji-sung, Ashley Young, and Nani are all candidates on the left.

Liverpool: Pepe Reina is the undisputed No. 1 for Liverpool while the first-choice center-back pairing is Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. If Enrique is ruled out for this match, expect to see Glen Johnson at left-back and Martin Kelly at right-back. If Enrique does start, then either Johnson or Kelly will be chosen at right-back.

If Dalglish elects to use three central-midfielders, then Jay Spearing is likely to be his holding-midfielder. Slightly ahead of him could be either Charlie Adam -- in a deep-lying playmaking role -- or Steven Gerrard. Either Gerrard or Jordan Henderson could be chosen to play as the most advanced player in a possible midfield trio. In a possible two-man central-midfield, any combination could be chosen from Spearing, Adam, Gerrard, Henderson.

Out wide to the right, Dirk Kuyt seems like the most probable selection choice but Dalglish could also choose from Henderson or Stewart Downing. On the left, the choices are seemingly from Downing, Craig Bellamy, and Maxi Rodriguez. The recently returned Suarez is a wild-card as he could be selected out wide or centrally in attack.

Up front, either Suarez or Andy Carroll could operate as a lone striker or the two could from a partnership. Kuyt and Bellamy are options at striker as well while Gerrard could play in 'the hole' behind either Suarez or Carroll if Dalglish uses a 4-2-3-1 system.

Here is lineup projection* (guess):

* I couldn't find a graphic to match Liverpool's gray away kit, so white will have to do.


* If United control possession, can they be incisive enough?: During the FA Cup match at Anfield, United controlled most of it for the first 75 minutes. Then, Scholes was substituted off and Liverpool gained control -- and eventually scored the winner. Despite Scholes pulling the strings in this match, United failed to create enough goalscoring chances when he was on the pitch because they weren't incisive enough in attack. Valencia/Rafael were a threat down the right touchline and the attack improved when Park switched to the middle from the left. Although Park provided a between the lines attacker after the switch -- someone who was able to link the midfield with the attack -- United were still missing a incisive force in attack through the middle. With Rooney available for this match, will he be that incisive force? Can the talisman provide the defense-splitting passes, driving runs from deep, and shots on target? United will need to be incisive from the flanks and through the middle if their attack is to generate enough goalscoring chances for United to take all three points in this match (Full Tactical Review: Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United | FA Cup).

* Liverpool's corners: The most recent match-up between these two sides highlights another tactical point that is likely to be key in this match -- how will de Gea handle himself during Liverpool's corners? In the first-half during the FA Cup match, Liverpool had three corners and during each one, they simply crowded de Gea near the goal-line with towering players. On two of the corners, the young Spaniard had nervy moments and during the other, he was indecisive when Agger hammered a header into the goal. For some unexplained reason, Liverpool changed their corner tactics in the 2nd half and decided to crowd the penalty spot instead. Will de Gea be ready for this challenge if it presents itself again? Will United have any counter-tactics to this?

* What shape will Dalglish deploy his side in?: Out of the 'big' side managers in the Premier League, it is Dalglish that tinkers with his tactics and formations more than any other on a match-by-match basis. Therefore, trying to come up with a tactical plan for Liverpool may be a challenge due to the unpredictability of their shape -- although that can be a problem for Liverpool as well. Will Dalglish use a defensive 4-1-4-1 shape in trying to stymie possession for United at Old Trafford? Will he use a 4-2-3-1 shape that allows Gerrard freedom in 'the hole' behind the lead striker? -- a role he thrived in under Rafa Benitez when Fernando Torres wasn't terrible. Will he deploy his side in a 4-4-2 shape and use either Suarez or Bellamy underneath Carroll? Will Downing line up on the left touchline in order to provide his side width in attack and crosses for Carroll if the big-man starts? Read back over the 'projected lineups' section in this preview if you need reminding of Dalglish's plethora of possibilities in midfield and attack.

KO: 12:45pm GMT, 7:45am EST | Old Trafford

Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.A.)

Referee: Phil Dowd

SB Nation Liverpool: Anfield Asylum

Odds: Manchester United 5/6, Draw 5/2, Liverpool 16/5

TBB Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool