When Liverpool lost 3-0 at Old Trafford in mid-December to leave them 10 points behind their fiercest rivals Manchester United, it appeared simply the continuation of a woeful start to the campaign for last season’s Premier League runners-up. Yet it was to prove the turning point in a phenomenal return to form that means they go into Sunday’s return match at Anfield with the chance to overhaul United in the standings and assume a place in the top-four for the first time this season.
Under closer observation, a 3-0 scoreline at Old Trafford had failed to reflect what took place on the pitch. Manchester United had benefited from an extraordinary display by David de Gea, while some poor defending had cost Liverpool dear. The visitors had enjoyed more shots at goal and on target and there were signs of a return of the attacking verve that characterized their push for the title last season. Key to that improvement was Brendan Rodgers’ switch to three at the back, and it has been a continued deployment of that basic shape that has seen Liverpool win 10, draw three and lose none of their 13 Premier League matches since.
Emre Can’s move into the center-back trio has added some assuredness to the defense and an instigator of attacks from deep. Further forward a box of four in midfield has allowed Liverpool to generally dominate the center of the pitch. In that quartet there has been a strong return to form for Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson impressively taking responsibility in the absence of late of captain Steven Gerrard.
However, what to do with the Anfield legend is one concern that Rodgers faces heading into a showdown that could go a long way toward deciding which team makes it into the Champions League next season. Both Henderson and Joe Allen have performed well while Gerrard has been out and the team has often looked more fluid. Yet Rodgers might be tempted into a shakeup by the way that Swansea City strangled Liverpool’s midfield in the first half of their clash on Monday night, in which Liverpool escaped with a win courtesy of a fortunate deflection off Henderson. Still, he would have been delighted three months ago if offered a scenario of taking on United with just one place and two points separating them in the table.
Pat of the erosion of that gap, of course, has also been down to Manchester United’s form. The win over Liverpool in December was yet another match in which Louis van Gaal’s side had come away with a win despite not impressing with their performance. With a return to the Champions League close to the only thing that matters at Old Trafford this season, that habit could be tolerated. But concerns were raised when the performances continued to be poor against the better teams, who punished United’s deficiencies. Defeats to Southampton and Swansea and at home to Arsenal in the FA Cup meant there were major doubts about United’s top-four credentials heading into a run of matches against four of the Premier League’s top six.
It was extremely timely then that United produced their best performance of the season to begin that stretch against Tottenham last week. A 3-0 win was sewn up with a first-half display full of the incisiveness and fluidity that has been so absent this campaign. Like Rodgers, though, Van Gaal faces a major selection dilemma over whether to return one of the club’s star names to the starting lineup. With club record signing Angel di Maria suspended, the man who preceded him with that title, Juan Mata, returned to the side and was an important part of United’s improved performance. Given Di Maria’s below par displays since his impressive start at Old Trafford, combined with Van Gaal’s propensity for paying little respect to reputations, the Argentinean now faces a battle to get back into the team.
Prediction: Playing at home and playing catch-up in the standings, the onus is on Liverpool to get the win. That scenario could suit Van Gaal. The Dutch coach has become considerably more pragmatic in recent times, and he will surely have taken note of how Swansea shut Liverpool down on Monday. Van Gaal did an impressive job of stopping Chelsea earlier in the season and could similarly aim to stifle Liverpool’s midfield at Anfield. While it might be cagey, both defenses have errors in them, meaning there should still be goals. The points, though, could well be shared.
Liverpool 1-1 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 9:30 a.m. ET