They are the two most successful clubs in English history, but their latest meeting on the hallowed turf of Anfield on Sunday will feature two teams desperately seeking to return to the top of the pyramid. Hosts Liverpool, with 18 league titles to their name, sit down in ninth, 12 points away from the Premier League summit. Meanwhile, visitors Manchester United, champions of England a record 20 times, are in sixth, nine points away from the position their fans have become accustomed to seeing their team in for most of the Premier League era.
Sunday’s clash, then, may not be a battle between two teams fighting it out for superiority in England. Yet it could reveal much about how long it takes both to get back to the summit. In the immediate term, a defeat for either side, particularly for Liverpool, would deal a significant blow to their hopes of garnering a place in the Champions League, which is so vital for attracting the world’s best players.
Signing such readymade stars is something both northwest giants have struggled with in recent years, despite their proud histories. For Manchester United the situation would appear more readily fixable. They have the biggest club stadium in England and huge sponsorship deals around the globe that make them one of the world’s richest sports teams.
Yet the quality of their current squad, nearly three years removed from the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson and their last league title, does not match that wealth. Their attacking threat is led by one of the world’s best-paid players, yet one whose best days appear long behind him, while much of the inspiration rests on a 20-year-old and 21-year-old, who both could become superstars but have plenty of developing still to undertake.
It is no surprise that Manchester United fans have been presented with precious little in the way of entertainment this season. The situation, however, has not been helped by the often stifling tactics of manager Louis van Gaal. Even when some thrills finally arrived at Newcastle United on Tuesday, his team threw away a 2-0 and then a 3-2 lead in the final minute to only come away with a point. A defeat to his team’s biggest rivals on Sunday would heap even greater pressure on his shoulders.
For Liverpool, the dominant force in the 1970s and 1980s, their fall from the top has been far longer in length, dating back to their last league title in 1990. On the surface they also have far further to go in order to get back there. Anfield may be a historic arena, but it is also one out of time, until a planned upgrade is completed lacking both the supporter and commercial capacity to generate the income to match Manchester United and the rest of Europe’s elite.
Yet, unlike at Manchester United, there is a near-unanimous feeling that Liverpool have the most important piece already in place. In Jurgen Klopp, the Merseysiders have one of the world’s most coveted managers and one, arguably unlike Van Gaal, whose philosophy about the game is decidedly modern.
Results since he replaced Brendan Rodgers have been inconsistent, but already there is clear evidence of a bond between the charismatic German and the supporters. And there have been moments to excite them about what the future could bring. Many of those have come against the biggest teams, garnering emphatic wins over Chelsea and Manchester City and on Wednesday a thrilling 3-3 draw with Premier League leaders Arsenal. In the type of breathless, all-action encounter Klopp, in contrast to Van Gaal, relishes, Liverpool outplayed Arsenal for much of the first half, and then, having fallen behind, showed admirable character to grab a last-minute equalizer.
Still, plenty of work remains. Klopp lacks enough players who can ultimately fulfill his hard-pressing, lightning counter-attacking philosophy. And, right now, he simply lacks players. Liverpool remain with a lengthy injury list, which against Manchester United will again include Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi, Philippe Coutinho, Danny Ings, Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel. With Kolo Toure now struggling for fitness, too, Klopp could be compelled to hand new loan signing Steven Caulker a first start at center-back.
Manchester United have their own injury concerns, with Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo still sidelined. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones also look set to miss out once again at Anfield.
D: Clyne, Toure, Sakho, Moreno
M: Henderson, Can, Milner
F: Ibe, Firmino, Lallana
G: De Gea
D: Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Young
M: Carrick, Schneiderlin
Mata, Herrera, Martial
Prediction: With Liverpool salvaging a point with a last-minute equalizer in midweek and Manchester United throwing away two points in the same circumstances, Klopp’s men should certainly come into the contest in better spirits. And, while United showed more attacking thrust against Newcastle, it was clear Van Gaal was angered that it came at the cost of a lack of control. Expect to United to go back to their cautious side at Anfield. They may, though, succeed in stifling a Liverpool side that could be weary after Wednesday’s exploits and their continued hectic schedule.
Predicted score: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester United