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Preview: Liverpool vs. Manchester United

Can United end Liverpool’s unbeaten start?

Manchester United v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Manchester United travel to Anfield to take on the undefeated Premier League leaders this weekend. This has long been one of English football’s top rivalries and — with Liverpool’s hot start this season — holds intriguing title implications.

Both teams played midweek in the Champions League, with the Merseysiders narrowly edging Napoli to qualify for the knockout stage. Manchester United faced comparatively little pressure having already advanced to the tournament’s next round before taking the field at the Mestalla.

José Mourinho made eight changes to the side that beat Fulham at the weekend, but they were less about resting key players and more juggling his squad’s crushing injury list. “Smalling is injured,” the manager told MUTV. “ [Victor] Lindelöf is injured. [Matteo] Darmian is injured. [Anthony] Martial is injured. [Diogo] Dalot is injured.”

“The only two players I could bring and I didn’t were [David] De Gea and [Nemanja] Matić You are the first ones to make statements saying how many minutes Matić is playing, saying week after week that he needs a rest. If he doesn’t have a rest when we’re already qualified, he will play until he explodes. Of course, it’s the normal option to leave him out.”

“Last week, we had three matches with the majority of the players playing all the time,” Mourinho continued. “I had no other options including a player like [Marcos] Rojo, who I expected to play today and give a rest to [Ashley] Young. At halftime, Rojo is injured and is out. The players I play in this match, if it was a match to decide the group, would be a very similar team. That’s the reality.”

With so many enforced changes, the Reds unsurprisingly looked disjointed in the 2-1 loss to Valencia. That wouldn’t have mattered much, except Young Boys shocked Juventus and United’s defeat cost the club Group H’s top spot. It looks like United bungled their way into a far more difficult knockout stage assignment.

Regarding Paul Pogba, his lackluster display against Valencia hardly makes the case for his recall on Sunday. The French midfielder has been on the bench in United’s previous two league matches, in which the Reds played pretty well in his absence. There’s even been suggestion from some quarters that United play better without Pogba.

That may be a little rash, but Pogba’s got a lot to prove. And he didn’t at the Mestalla. Pogba’s only notable moment came when he fluffed his lines on a golden chance to level the score in the first half.

There's no bigger stage than Liverpool vs. Manchester United and it’s exactly the kind of match that the £89 million Pogba was brought here for. How far he’s fallen that even a starting position is no longer guaranteed.

Liverpool, in perpetual search of that first league title since 1990, have been the story of the season to this point. The Merseysiders remain unbeaten through sixteen matches and currently hold a slim lead over Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. They struggled a bit in Champions League Group C, but their league form has been nothing short of incredible.

It all starts up top for Jurgen Klopp’s side. And that fearsome Liverpool attack presents a worrying problem for Manchester United’s suspect defense. Sadio Mane, Firmino, and Mo Salah terrify even the hardiest defenses — and United’s backline falls well short of that standard.

Unfortunately, Salah’s heating up again. He followed up his weekend hat-trick at Bournemouth with the winner against Napoli that sent Liverpool through to the knockouts.

The win over Napoli, though, did not come without cost. Defenders Trent Alexander-Arnold (foot) and Joel Matip (broken collarbone) both suffered injuries late in the match. They join Joe Gomez in the physio room and give Klopp a selection headache for this weekend.

With Matip sidelined long-term, Dejan Lovren should partner Virgil van Dijk at center back. If anyone can get United’s sputtering forwards scoring again, it’s Lovren. Alexander-Arnold remains a question mark, possibly forcing Klopp to shift a midfielder into the right back spot. James Milner would be a likely choice, but he left the Napoli match with cramps. Fabinho is another option.

Liverpool’s pressing defense has only allowed 6 league goals this season, but Manchester United should benefit from facing the banged-up version of this unit. Even so, Liverpool stand out as the strong bettors’ favorite in this one.

But, let’s not forget: The last time Liverpool seriously challenged for their long-coveted Premier League title, it was José Mourinho’s Chelsea that crashed the party. The Anfield crowd expected a coronation on that 2014 day, but a Mourinho masterclass (along with that infamous Steven Gerrard slip) proved the difference. Let’s hope for another of those on Sunday.

The stakes aren’t nearly as high this weekend, but the United boss surely relishes the chance to upend his longtime rival’s dream start. As Manchester United manager, Mourinho has not lost to Klopp’s Liverpool. It’s not always pretty, but he finds a way to nullify Liverpool’s high-flying attack. Doing that again on Sunday, with this group, might rank among his greatest accomplishments.