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Preview: Manchester United vs. Liverpool

Two longtime rivals meet on Saturday with second place on the line.

Manchester United v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

Manchester United welcome hard-charging Liverpool to Old Trafford for a lunchtime kickoff on Saturday. In recent weeks, these two clubs have battled back and forth for second place and a win this weekend could make all the difference as the Premier League season heads into the home stretch.

United enter this pivotal match fresh off an exhilarating back-from-the-dead victory at Crystal Palace on Monday. An abject first-half performance at Selhurst Park left the Reds 2-0 down and looking hopeless. But the manager’s blistering halftime talk sparked a revival, capped off by Nemanja Matić’s stoppage-time stunner that rescued all three points.

While undoubtedly thrilling, Monday’s frenzied comeback could take its toll this weekend. United spent most of the match desperately chasing the game and exerted a huge amount of energy to beat back Crystal Palace. It’s hard to say whether that will catch up to the squad on Saturday.

Meanwhile, José Mourinho pulled off a miraculous escape of his own — dodging an FA ban for kicking a water bottle into the south London crowd. Last season, the United manager was not so lucky and received a one-match ban for a similar offense. This time, the FA proved lenient and the boss will be back prowling the Old Trafford touch-line on Saturday.

In the first matchup back in October, United came away from Anfield with a hard-fought 0-0 draw. Mourinho and his players came in for some criticism after the match, namely for a lack of ambition. While United certainly sat back and avoided Jurgen Klopp’s pressing machine, the narrative might have been far different if Romelu Lukaku had converted his one-on-one chance in the first half.

That miss sent Lukaku spiraling into a barren spell in front of goal. Thankfully, the Belgian forward looks himself again of late — with eight goals so far in 2018, including tallies in the last two matches.

Paul Pogba also missed Liverpool away while recovering from his serious hamstring injury. Although some way off his best, Pogba still gives the United midfield an added dynamism that was conspicuously missing at Anfield.

Plus, Alexis Sánchez was still an unhappy Arsenal player back then. This is not the same Manchester United side that struggled on Merseyside.

But Liverpool, too, have improved. Mohamed Salah turned out to be one of last summer’s best bargains, with 24 league goals in his first season back in England. Salah has hit the ground running, mixing well with the dangerous Sadio Mané — who missed the first United match with his own hamstring complaint.

Saturday mostly brings a contrast in styles. Liverpool scores more — and allows more — than Manchester United. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Klopp favors a more gung-ho approach than Mourinho.

The Merseysiders play their best against fellow big teams — including handing Manchester City their lone league defeat this season — largely because Klopp’s pressing system was created to wreck possession football and purists like Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola usually take the bait.

Love him or hate him, José Mourinho is no purist. The United manager will send his team out to win three points, not to prove a point on how football should be played. Don’t expect a ton of possession against Liverpool, passing the ball around the back, or tempting fate by pushing too many men forward. If Liverpool want the ball, they can have it.

They just need to be ready for United’s devastating counter-attacks.

Even after shelling out £75 million for center back Virgil van Dijk in January, Liverpool’s defense remains quite fragile. The club’s record-breaking signing has had a rough landing on Merseyside, with several high-profile miscues costing his new club points. But he seems to be settling in now and, while van Dijk may always struggle to justify his fee, he will undoubtedly prove less calamitous than Dejan Lovren.

This is a really important match — and no one knows that more than Mourinho. “It is a big game against Liverpool,” he told MUTV earlier this week. “We both want to finish in the top four, but we both want to finish second so, yes, it is a big game.”

Liverpool played Porto on Tuesday in the Champions League, having all but advanced after winning 5-0 in the first leg. The match ended 0-0, but Klopp sent out a fairly strong lineup — with the exception of resting Salah and van Dijk. Before Tuesday’s draw, Liverpool had won four straight and are now unbeaten in their last seven.

Saturday’s match starts a tough run for United, with must-win games in the Champions League and FA Cup soon to follow. Thankfully, the club finally has some breathing room in its race for the top four with United now nine points clear of Chelsea in fifth place.

Only nine league games remain, putting the Reds in prime position to reclaim a Champions League place. A win on Saturday moves them a step closer and keeps spirits high ahead of an important European date with Sevilla.