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Preview: Manchester United vs. Liverpool

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Can United put a dent in Liverpool’s title hopes?

Liverpool FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s finally here. Manchester United host Liverpool on Sunday in what probably ranks as the biggest Premier League match of the season. This visit to Old Trafford remains the biggest obstacle left in Liverpool’s path to the league title, while United hope to upend their bitter rivals and hand another statement win to caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool currently sit second in the Premier League, although with a game in hand on Manchester City. With the leaders contesting the Carabao Cup final this weekend, Liverpool could seize back control of the league with a win. A loss, though, puts City fully in the driver’s seat with just eleven matches remaining.

This is hardly ideal stuff for Manchester United, but better another City title than Liverpool finally snapping their long streak of domestic futility.

The good news: Liverpool haven’t won at Old Trafford since 2014 and just twice overall in the last nine matches between these two sides. Plus, since losing back-to-back matches against Manchester City and Wolves last month, Klopp’s side has drawn three and won three. Not exactly top form.

Okay, now the bad. That 3-1 loss in December. It was pretty ugly, with Liverpool peppering the United goal and generally dominating every phase of play.

Even then, despite a decided advantage in possession and shots, the Merseysiders only won on two deflected Xherdan Shaqiri goals in the second half. No matter the peripheral stats, any match settled by deflections has an element of luck about it.

Unfortunately, United might be missing two of their most important players for this one. Solskjaer already ruled Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial out for the Liverpool match after both picked up injuries during the PSG loss. There’s been some suggestion that the pair could recover in time for Sunday, but Ole will understandably keep that knowledge close to his vest. A shock return from either (or both!) would do wonders for United’s prospects.

Earlier this week, United bounced back from the humbling PSG affair to heap even more pressure on Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri. The 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge also proved that Solskjaer does not need his full complement of stars to produce big victories. Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera both stepped up in Lingard and Martial’s absence to secure the win and a place in the FA Cup quarterfinals.

No one understands the importance of Manchester United vs. Liverpool better than Solskjaer. He lived this rivalry as a player for more than a decade and now relishes the chance to derail Liverpool’s title bid from the dugout. In the aftermath of the Chelsea win, the boss made it clear where his mind was: “The next game now is Liverpool and we have just got to focus on that one.”

Other than the injuries to Lingard and Martial, United’s side largely picks itself these days. The likes of Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Victor Lindelöf, Luke Shaw, and David De Gea are all playing too well to be dropped. Ashley Young will also be available, as his one-match suspension (yellow card accumulation) only applies to the FA Cup. And Nemanja Matić might be out of form, but there’s not really anyone else to take his place.

Liverpool, too, have an injury concern. Dejan Lovren looks doubtful for the trip to Old Trafford, which will force Klopp to shuffle his defense (and possibly midfield). He could deploy Fabinho in central defense to replace Lovren, as he did Tuesday in the Champions League. The Brazilian responded well and mostly shut down Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski. Or, if Klopp prefers to keep Fabinho in midfield, Joel Matip is another option at the back.

Virgil Van Dijk will also be back after sitting out the Champions League match through suspension. The imposing central defender should be well rested for Sunday.

While Liverpool’s mid-week 0-0 draw against the German champs isn’t the worst result, it was a surprisingly tame performance for a team coming off of a ten day break. Klopp took advantage of the open schedule and flew his squad to Spain for a warm-weather training camp. But the end result left something to be desired as Liverpool looked rusty on Tuesday, with Klopp especially bemoaning his side’s inability to make the final pass during attacking opportunities.

Still, that frontline of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino always poses a threat. Before the scoreless Champions League match, Mane had scored the opening goal for his team in three straight games. Lindelöf and company must keep a careful eye on all three — but especially Mane in the early going.

One to watch: Naby Keita. The 24-year-old finally seems to be finding his footing in the Premier League. Keita’s made five straight starts for the Merseysiders, although Klopp did remove him in mid-week after an uneven performance.

This should be a far different match than the one-sided affair in December. And Liverpool know it. “[United] are obviously in good shape,” Klopp said, “which we all saw [against Chelsea]. I don’t think about it now, but I know it will come and now we start preparing for that game. It’s another tough one and that’s how football is at a top club. We played Bayern tonight and then Man United at the weekend. That’s cool, actually, but it will not be easy.”