Manchester United v Liverpoool
Always one of the Premier League’s most eagerly awaited fixtures of the season, Manchester United’s Sunday lunchtime clash with Liverpool at Old Trafford has added significance for two teams trying desperately to reproduce former glories.
Five league wins out of five have made Old Trafford into a theatre of dreams again for the United faithful, but even the most ardent fan will acknowledge that their side is a long way from being able to compete longterm with Chelsea and Manchester City. Those two teams are all that stand between United and top spot now they have climbed up to third, but even Louis Van Gaal could not disguise how lucky his side were to come away from St Mary’s with a 2-1 win on Monday night, having been totally outplayed. The difference was a resurgent Robin Van Persie, whose two goals papered over the cracks of a performance that saw United have only three shots at goal in the whole game, the lowest they have achieved in over ten years, and the added fact that they only had six touched inside the opposition’s 18-yard box to Southampton’s 32 touches indicates a lack of thrust going forward. Van Gaal was quick to spot the defensive failings of his team, hauling off McNair before halftime because of his edgy display, and he will be pleased to see Jonny Evans back on the pitch again, replacing the injured Chris Smalling early on. With Angel di Maria, Luke Shaw, Rafael, Phil Jones and Daley Blind all still on the sidelines, united will need to continue to dig deep to maintain their recent charge up the table.
Liverpool’s decline after the heady days of last season has been dramatic, if not totally unexpected. Losing Luis Suarez left Brendan Rodgers trying to replace the irreplaceable, but to be without Daniel Sturridge for all but a couple of game has left his side’s sharp attacking play of last season blunt and toothless. The marquis signing of Mario Balotelli already looks like a horrible mistake, although he is back in training after a six-game layoff, and might yet come back to prove all his doubters wrong. Ironically, the 1-1 draw at home to Basel that secured their Champions League exit on Tuesday also marked their fifth unbeaten game in all competition, making it their best run of the season so far. That said, the run included disappointing draws with Ludogorets and Sunderland to go with the Basel result, as well as a vital but far-from-convincing 1-0 win at home to Stoke City. Rodgers will at least be boosted by the expected availability of Adam Lallana, who has been struggling with cracked ribs, but he will need more from his strike force if he is to avoid too much pressure being put on Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling to produce the goods.