I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that the last couple of weeks have been building up to this one. Jürgen Klopp might have put a few noses out of place with the British press when he decided to make ten changes for the FA Cup match against Plymouth Argyle, but most Liverpool supporters could see the logic on the back of a ludicrously hectic winter schedule. The result against Southampton in the League Cup was disappointing, yet as soon as the final whistle blew virtually all talk turned to our visit to Old Trafford.
This game is often referred to as a derby, but that’s not true. Derbies, in my opinion, are only between teams from the same city. This is a grudge match, made more significant because of the relative success of the two teams over the last fifty years. The rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester long predates any footballing vitriol, but on-the-pitch matters have certainly helped to stoke the fire. This has the feel of a game that could be crucial to either team’s season. Manchester United struggled at the start but are in full swing now, whilst Liverpool risk being caught by their old rivals. So how will it all pan out?
The departure of Sadio Mané isn’t the sole reason for Liverpool’s mediocre performances of late, especially as the Senegal international appeared in both the win over Manchester City and the draw with Sunderland before jetting off to play in the African Cup of Nations. We certainly look like we lack pace without him, however, and he won’t be available for selection until he returns from AFCON duties. Much like with Danny Ings, he may as well not exist as far as our ability to call on him is concerned.
The return of Philippe Coutinho to our starting line-up can’t come soon enough. The Brazilian has been out for the best part of two months but looked sharp when he got half an hour against Southampton on Wednesday night. Jürgen Klopp has to make some very big calls about some very important players, with Jordan Henderson and Joel Matip having joined Coutinho in training on Thursday. The German confirmed in his pre-match press conference that he would wait to see how they reacted to training before deciding if they’re available for selection.
I don’t want to make too bold a statement and I hate doing down Liverpool’s chances, but if the three of them don’t start I think we’ll struggle to get a result against the Red Devils. Emre Can and Lucas Leiva looked so off the pace at St. Mary’s that it was almost as if they were still playing the Plymouth game. If they go up against the likes of Michael Carrick & Paul Pogba and play like that then we could be in trouble. If all is well injury-wise then this is the first XI I hope Klopp goes for: Mignolet – Clyne – Matip – Lovren – Milner – Henderson – Lallana – Wijnaldum – Coutinho – Sturridge – Firmino.
For Klopp’s opposite number there are far less worries when it comes to the fitness and availability of his squad. Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed the League Cup match against Hull on Tuesday night with a virus, but José Mourinho told the press on Friday that he expects the Swede to be available for selection. Bad news for a Liverpool defence that has struggled to deal with high balls and strong, muscular players.
Speaking of defences, Eric Bailly has departed Manchester in order to take part in the African Cup of Nations, but Marcos Rojo looks as though he’s ready to continue his return from injury. Expect him to partner Phil Jones at the back who is thankfully fit to play despite rolling around like he’d had his leg chopped off in order to influence Mike Dean’s decision to send off Feghouli in their last Premier League game against West Ham.
It’s a funny thing, form. On the one hand Liverpool have only won one of their last four games in all competitions. On the other hand we came out of the gruelling month of December with thirteen points from a possible eighteen, including an away game at Goodison Park and a home match against Manchester City. This is the 50th game we’ll have played at Old Trafford, though, and only won thirteen of the previous 49. United, somewhat predictably, have won 27. As for the managers, Klopp has only lost one game against a Mourinho side.
Pundits are keen to make a song and dance of the fact that United have won nine games on the bounce heading into this one. That’s not to be belittled or ignored, of course, yet they haven’t exactly faced the toughest of opposition during that run. Tottenham were the only side of note that they went up against and one of those wins was versus Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League. They’re dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not convinced that they are the immortal beast that they’re being made into. Without a few incorrect offside decisions going their way I’m not sure they win all nine.
There’s an argument that form goes out of the window for these sorts of games but I’m not convinced by that. After all, we’d probably have won more than thirteen games out of 49 at Old Trafford if that were the case. Which way this game goes depends entirely on which Liverpool side chooses to show up. Here are my main betting tips:
Both Teams To Score
This has been something of a go-to bet for me this season, largely because Liverpool’s attack as looked so sumptuous and our defence has been so questionable. There is pretty much no scenario in which I can’t see us conceding, especially if Ibrahimovic returns to the United starting line-up. The big question is whether or not our attack can cause their defence some problems and, if they can, get past David de Gea. The ‘keeper has been United’s Man of the Match more than a few times in the past.
It is 8/11 for Both Teams To Score, so the odds aren’t exactly tempting on that front. It’s difficult to see it not happening, however, so you could consider that your banker bet to get your money back before looking for something more exciting. Alternatively it is 3/1 for BTTS and Manchester United to Win and I’d be tempted by that. If you’re more positive than I am then you’ll be happy to know that’s where the money is – it’s 6/1 for Liverpool to Win & BTTS.
Who Will Score The Goals?
I genuinely thought that Zlatan Ibrahimovic might struggle in the Premier League. You can call it wishful thinking if you want, but I figured that defences in this country were used to dealing with big groks like Andy Carroll and would be able to figure the Swede out pretty quickly. Thirteen goals later and I might just have to admit that I was wrong. I hope I’m wrong with my assertion that he’ll definitely score against our defence, too, but the bookies agree with me as Zlatan is 6/5 to Score Anytime.
There’s nothing I like less in football than a narrative that you can see coming from a mile away. Wayne Rooney scored against Reading in the FA Cup to put himself level with Bobby Charlton as Manchester United’s all-time leading goalscorer. There is literally no way that the former Evertonian from Liverpool is not scoring against us to become their leading goalscorer, is there? The only good news is that it’s 7/4 for Rooney to Score Anytime, so you can at least double your money when the Shrek lookalike nets on Sunday.
Cards To Be Dished Out?
There hasn’t been a sending off in this fixture since Steven Gerrard’s infamous stamp on Ander Herrera moments after coming on as a substitute in the game at Anfield back in 2015. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be one though, especially given that Liverpool-Manchester United games has seen sixteen red cards over the years – more than any match other than the Merseyside derby. It’s 5/2 for their to be a Sending Off at Old Trafford and that looks a little long to me. Admittedly the officials often turn a blind eye to Mourinho’s obvious and deliberate tactic to try to nobble on of our players early doors.
Goodness knows I’m loathe to try and predict this one, but I’m afraid I see a Manchester United win coming to put them two points behind us and back in the title race. It’s unusual for me to opt for two goal scorers as my chief tips, but the narrative around Rooney scoring Anytime @ 7/4 is too strong to ignore. Equally I just don’t think out defence can deal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is 6/5 to Score Anytime. It won’t help your betting, but this is the one time I hope I’m wrong.