Sports from the Basement

Liverpool at United is a Season Defining Fixture for Both Clubs

Old Trafford is the battleground for the 198th edition of the North-West Derby featuring Manchester United and Liverpool. United will be looking to continue their 15 match unbeaten streak in all competitions, the most recent of which a comfortable 2-0 league cup semi-final win over Hull. Liverpool and their fans have come down from the high of beating City largely due to ties against Sunderland and league 2 Plymouth Argyle, and a league cup semi-final loss to Southampton.

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Claiming any match has more significance than any other can be a matter of opinion, but ask any fan. The results of this game affect your mood for weeks. Just ten points separate the teams in the top six of the English Premier league making matchups between these sides vital to a top four finish.

Liverpool has not lost against teams in the top six this season with notable wins at Chelsea and Arsenal. Klopp has been able to impose his high intensity style successfully against nearly every team in the Premier League. Their average of almost 2.5 goals a game is good enough for the best in the league and there’s a real sense of joy excitement surrounding the current squad.

The problem for Klopp, and Liverpool, is Jose Mourinho is a man who knows how to defeat an all-out attack. Liverpool’s match against United earlier this year was arguably the only time where they weren’t the better side. United had a single shot on target that day, but Ander Herrera was a menace in the midfield, constantly disrupting Liverpool’s transition from the midfield to the attacking third.

Debate about whether parking the bus is the style fans purchasing tickets want to see aside, Mourinho was highly effective in allowing Liverpool to control the game. In truth, as the game wore on his side looked the more likely to score on the counter.

A goalless draw at Southampton highlights the importance of who’s involved in Liverpool’s front line. The pace of Sadio Mane and his understanding of Coutinho and Firmino will surely be missed over the next month. Coutinho was able to get good minutes in the league cup semi-final, but his shot calibration was way off. It’s unclear if Coutinho will even be at ful match fitness.

Sturridge on the surface is obvious replacement for Mane based on goal scoring ability, but he’s incapable of putting in the same work rate. Further, Sturridge is more of a hold up player. He’s not quite a Benteke or Rondon, but he’s more likely to take a defender one on one than contribute to free flowing football in and around the box. These are reasons why Origi has been the preferred replacement.

For all of the questions surrounding Klopp’s squad, Mourinho has had the luxury of not dealing with injuries. United’s fifteen game unbeaten streak is rooted in consistent performances from Zlatan Ibraimovic, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata; the list goes on. Even 35 year old Michael Carrick has carved a role in Mourinho’s side.

Mourinho’s overall shape doesn’t change often, but he possesses so many different attacking options. Ibrahimovic, a constant target of arial passes, is the exact type of player Liverpool have struggled to defend against this season. Marcus Rashford and/or Anthony Martial will undoubtedly be used Sunday at some point to cause fill in left back James Milner some problems. Juan Mata has an excellent goal scoring record against Liverpool. Too many attacking options should be a manager’s favorite problem.

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Mourinho is good at stymying even the most potent offenses. He had to do it in Spain against Barcelona. He built Champions league squads at Porto and Inter by preventing goals. He’s the perfect antithesis of Pep Guardiola; a manager who doesn’t care how his side looks on the field, as long as they’re winning.

All signs are pointing to a United victory, which is what makes this game so critical. Mourinho was allowed to have some growing pains in the first half of the year, but there’s an expectation United will close the gap on a top four spot against an arch rival this weekend. Missing this opportunity would be a serious setback to the progress made of the last two months.

Liverpool is on a three game skip, but need to focus on keeping within reach of Chelsea. The club needs to re-discover their confidence and goal scoring ability in Mane’s absence. Liverpool is closest to Chelsea in the table, but has no buffer. A loss to United this weekend could see Liverpool drop as far as fifth which would be huge blow to their title hopes. It’s not a stretch to say this game will define whether Liverpool is fighting for the title or European football.

In a tight top four race, keeping pace is critical. A Liverpool loss will highlight some ongoing issues that Klopp needs to address in the transfer window. Failing to secure a victory at home against an historic rival would result in the same for Mourinho. Certainly the result of this game will have an effect on the confidence of the winning (and losing) side in the second half of the season.

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