Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has another upset in mind. Photo: AP Photo/Rui Vieira
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has another upset in mind. Photo: AP Photo/Rui Vieira

Manchester United’s guilty pleasure

FOR Liverpool fans, it is the unspeakable, the unsayable, the one word that could bring the world crashing down around them … "Champions". Shhhh, shuuttt uuppp!

The stats say it all: 38 games unbeaten, 14 points clear at the top, the highest points from a season's start in any of Europe's big five leagues … Only a fool would dream that Liverpool won't win the Premier League this season.

Or a Manchester United fan.

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Not to say United fans are fools - far from it. The denizens of the Theatre of Dreams have had little to brag about of late but they can at least lay claim to being the only team to take points of Jurgen Klopp's unstoppable Red Machine this season.

And this is where their hope lies.

 

Not in ending Liverpool's title procession but at least inflicting whatever pain they can on their dearest rivals. United want to be the kryptonite to Klopp's supermen, the fly in the ointment, the curly hair in the gazpacho.

And recent history suggests they could again spoil the party atmosphere at Anfield. United have lost just once in their last seven league games against the Merseysiders. Then again, so have Liverpool, with the rest of the games low-scoring draws.

Marcus Rashford cracked Manchester City’s season apart. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Marcus Rashford cracked Manchester City’s season apart. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Given the current circumstances - and the whopping 27 points between the two - victory at Anfield appears unlikely. But then, so did victory over Manchester City at the Etihad in December. And look what happened there. (An uppercut 2-1 win for United, in case your pre-Christmas memory is just a haze.)

The trip to Liverpool is a daunting one at the moment but that suits Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's version of United perfectly. No expectation, probably even less possession. All they have to do is wait for an opening and slip that Marcus Rashford-shaped dagger between Liverpool's ribs.

Observers have spoken at length about United's current situation and how they feel at ease, and therefor play better, when the weight of making the game is on their opposition. For all their inconsistency, United do have some very good players - Rashford, Daniel James, Mason Greenwood, Aaron Wan-Bissaka - all young, skilful and pre-programmed with Solskjaer's counterattacking mentality.

Victory over United would be hugely satisfying for Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
Victory over United would be hugely satisfying for Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

It's worked against City, Chelsea, Leicester, Tottenham - and did more to contain Liverpool than anyone else has managed this season. United only had 32 per cent of the ball in that 1-1 draw at Old Trafford but came away with a feel-good result.

And it's not just at home; victory at the Etihad was a custard pie in City's face and the high point of United's season so far, a triumph of pace and precision. It is precisely what they want to do to Liverpool this weekend.

Against City, United withstood the blurring blue triangles and waited, like a rubber band on the edge of a thumb. As soon as they got the ball, red shirts snapped forward, bounding over the halfway line towards City's goal and Marcus Rashford's boots. Two-nil up within half an hour was better than expected but to hold City at bay until Nicolas Otamendi's header in the 85th minute showed there is some grit to Solskjaer's talented but callow team. This was what United fans believe must always be the way.

Liverpool’s pressing starts right at the top. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Liverpool’s pressing starts right at the top. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

But Liverpool are not City. For a start, Klopp's team haven't conceded a goal in their last six league games, scoring 13 of their own. Their attacks come in such unrelenting waves opposing players must feel the ringing in their ears and the thump-thump-thump as their circulatory system reaches breaking point.

Then, when Liverpool do lose the ball they press ferociously to get it back, harrying their opponents until they play backwards or - usually - turn over possession. And, crucially, this starts with the front three, continues on the wings and only gets worse in the midfield. So even if you do somehow make it past the sharks/lasers/sharks with lasers of the attackers, midfield and those fullbacks - you then have to face Virgin van Dijk, the big boss in Anfield's very own Mario World.

Rashford’s fitness is crucial for this clash. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Rashford’s fitness is crucial for this clash. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Only a fool would try to predict the outcome of Liverpool vs Manchester United but a home victory would feel significant for Klopp. Only once has he claimed honours against the old foe, the 3-1 win last year that put the nail in Count Mourinho's coffin.

The Reds have already beaten City, Leicester, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Everton - all of the teams that usually cause trouble have been swatted aside. Those two points dropped at Old Trafford are the only stain on Klopp's otherwise spotless season.

And United are not in the best shape right now. Rashford's fitness is a major concern after a back injury in the midweek FA Cup win over Wolves, and Solskjaer will also be without Ashley Young, Eric Bailly, Axel Tuanzebe, Marcos Rojo, Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba.

That puts a lot of pressure on erratic midfielder Fred to turn up as he did against City, against Jordan Henderson - and whoever else Klopp decides to play. United's 22-year-old leftback Brandon Williams can also expect a thorough examination from Mo Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Only a fool would try to predict the outcome of Liverpool vs Manchester United. The odds are on a home win but Solsjkaer will wind his team up to burst the league-leaders' bubble. But this is just a battle, not the war. On that front, Liverpool are poised to sweep it all up. Just don't talk about it.

Liverpool vs Manchester United kicks off at 3.30am Monday morning.


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