On the back of a sixth straight away victory at Stamford Bridge on Monday, Manchester United host Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday in the biggest match on the Premier League calendar. Liverpool’s recent form has cooled off a bit, although they may consider themselves unlucky to have been held scoreless in their 0-0 draw against Bayern Munich on Wednesday. With a win, Liverpool will climb above Manchester City to the top of the table, having played the same amount of games. United, on the other hand, need a win to keep their place in the top four ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea. And - most importantly - to do their part to prevent the unthinkable outcome of them winning the league. Ugh.
The Busby Babe: I’m on record as saying that I will walk into the ocean and never come back if Liverpool win the league this season, whereas no one cares nearly as much if City win it (as unpleasant as that is). If you do fall short (assuming you don’t do something silly like win the Champions League), is this season still a success? After being top of the table for so long, would finishing second now be even worse than “This does not slip!”?
The Liverpool Offside: I think any time a team breaks 90 points, it’s a very successful season. Unfortunately, it looks like we might have two teams this season get near 95 points and only one of them lifts the trophy at the end. That team might be Liverpool or that team might be City. Regardless of what happens in May, I think this has been a successful season. Obviously, people compare this title race to the one in 13/14, because that was the last time Liverpool had a shot. But I think the two teams couldn’t be more different. 13/14 was such an emotional rollercoaster, because you had Gerrard at the end of his career. It was all about him finally lifting the title. This year’s team is much, much more stable and balanced. 13/14 had Aly Cissokho playing left-back, for Christ’s sake. This Liverpool team is set to compete for the league and the Champions League for several years, regardless of what happens at the end of this season.
TBB: Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Marcos Rojo for Virgil van Dijk. That’s 3 players for 1. You’d obviously take that deal, right? It’s simple arithmetic.
TLO: Are you okay? Do you need to talk? Let’s go for a walk, man.
TBB: Speaking of Van Dijk, will he be fit for Sunday? Are there any other potential weaknesses in the Liverpool team - either through injury or something else - that United may be able to exploit?
TLO: Van Dijk missed the Bayern game because of yellow card accumulation. Unless he catches the shits from Wijnaldum or Firmino, or a bad order at Nandos, he should be fully operational. His partner on the backline, however, is a bit more unknown. Joel Matip was the only fit first team center-back on Tuesday night. Dejan Lovren has been out since early January with a hamstring injury. Joe Gomez had his ankle broken by Burnley’s Ben Mee and still hasn’t recovered.
Unless Klopp wants to get wild and start Fabinho alongside van Dijk, Joel Matip will start. He’s a decent 4th CB to have on your team, but he’s got a few weaknesses. I suspect United may want to target him if they want to find success against Liverpool.
TBB: United may be missing two of our three first choice attackers, which - from a preparation standpoint - could present different scenarios depending on who is available. In what areas of the pitch do you expect the match to be won or lost?
TLO: Klopp’s biggest decision he has to make is what he does with the midfield. Over the last two seasons, he’s gone with his trusted 3 of Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Milner in big games. While that midfield controls games well, it has a lack of creativity and drive at times, especially with Milner getting up there in age. Klopp spent over £100m on Naby Keita and Fabinho in the summer. In the last 6 weeks or so, they’ve both really started showing their quality. Whoever Klopp picks in the middle of the park is a sign of how he sees the game going. I suspect you’ll see one of Henderson or Milner and one of Fabinho or Keita, with Wijnaldum the only sure starter of the bunch.
TBB: How will Klopp approach the match on Sunday? Similarly to Bayern at Anfield in mid-week, or should we expect some potential surprises?
TLO: I don’t suspect any potential surprises, unless something happens fitness wise at the last minute. As I said in my previous answer, how Klopp sets up his midfield is the indicator of how he sees the match going. I don’t think it’ll be similar to the Bayern game at Anfield, mainly because both Bayern & Liverpool were reacting to injuries and suspensions. However, I do think the way Klopp sets up on Sunday is how he will intend to set up against Bayern when they face off in Munich.
TBB: Finally, line-up and score predictions?
TLO: Alisson; Robertson, van Dijk, Matip, TAA; Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum; Mane, Firmino, Salah.
TBB: Always a pleasure, Mark. Thanks for stopping by.