By Aaron Hampton
As we enter the stretch run of the Premier League season, Manchester United and Liverpool stand within two points of each other in the race for England’s last Champion’s League spot. With such little to separate these clubs in the standings, Sunday’s match-up at Anfield is the most crucial test for either club yet, and will ultimately prove pivotal in determining the fate of England’s most fierce rivals.
Much has been made about Manchester United and their struggles this season, and yet for every complaint about Louis Van Gaal’s questionable tactics or for every snide about expensive signings not living up to their wage bill, if the season ended today Manchester United would be playing Champion’s League football. One could also argue that despite losing to Newcastle in the league and Arsenal in the FA Cup in back-to-back weeks, they come into Sunday’s match against Liverpool riding their best from after drubbing Tottenham 3-0 at Old Trafford.
And yet, it would certainly be foolish to read too much into one result given what we’ve seen from Manchester United thus far this season. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of their form this season gives way to this type of skepticism, even after seeing guys like Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, and Juan Mata put in there best performances of the season against Tottenham. Let’s not forget, December also saw United post a 3-0 result against an opponent, only to follow that up with an unremarkable 1-1 away draw to Aston Villa the following week. That December night saw Manchester United beat Liverpool, who themselves have went on to become the hottest team in England after that loss.
Just how hot have Liverpool since that loss to United? Not only have they gone unbeaten since losing to United at Old Trafford in December, but a once leaky Liverpool defense has not conceded a goal in the Premier League since Van Persie scored United’s third in their previous meeting. Liverpool have also looked reinvigorated in attack, not quite matching the SAS level’s of yesteryear, but still look extremely dangerous in attack when their pressing game is working, and they are able to win the ball back high up the pitch and get the ball out quickly to their attackers. With United’s defense anything but settled, and Johnny Evans missing Sunday’s clash, Liverpool will surely look to push the pace against the visitors in front of a raucous Anfield crowd and put a couple goals through early to push the contest out of reach.
Despite getting the 1-0 result at Swansea, Liverpool showed that wing-back in particular is an area for concern in their coveted 3-4-2-1 system that has given so many fits during their run. With that, Liverpool will have to be careful in leaving too much space behind in attack, specifically on the wings where guys like Ashley Young or Angel Di Maria can exploit that space quickly. Even with Louis Van Gaal’s disdain, United remain extremely partial to the long ball, and can make Liverpool pay on the counter if they are overly ambitious in front of the home faithful.
The sheer intensity and magnitude of any Liverpool-Manchester United clash means the stakes are high whenever these two lock horns. Both are accustomed to battling it out with the other for titles, and while those circumstances changed, both yearn to return to Europe’s elite and compete in the Champion’s League. One moves a step closer to those aspirations after Sunday’s result is read, the other left to scramble one of the closest races for Champion’s League qualification in recent memory.