21 March 2015

Liverpool v Manchester United 03.22.15

9:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-3 United (a) 12.14.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.14
1-0 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: -1-0 Swansea (a); 0-0 Blackburn (h); 2-0 Burnley (h)
United: 3-0 Tottenham (h); 1-2 Arsenal (h); 1-0 Newcastle (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Sterling 6; Henderson 5; Coutinho, Lallana, Own Goal 4; Sturridge 3; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
United: Rooney 11; van Persie 10; Mata 5; Falcao, Fellaini 4; Di Maria, Herrera, Smalling 3; Blind 2; Carrick, Wilson, Young 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Sterling Henderson Allen Moreno
Gerrard Coutinho

It's probably not possible to exaggerate tomorrow's importance.

At its "least" significant, Liverpool versus Manchester United is a gut-churning, nail-biting, 90-minute aneurysm, la petite mort in every sense of the phrase.

For extra incentive, tomorrow's winners will be odds-on favorites for the fourth Champions League place: Liverpool looking to get into the competition for the second-straight season despite their horrific start to the campaign; Manchester United looking to get back into the competition after failing to qualify for the first time since 1995-96.

Liverpool, unbeaten in 90 minutes since the last time these sides played, more than three months ago. Manchester United, with just two league losses since the start of November (at Southampton and at Swansea), coming off their most impressive victory of the season a week ago.

Liverpool, still far removed from the peak of their powers up front but startlingly secure at the back, the form side in the league and diametrically opposite from the first three months of the season. Manchester United, overflowing with expense talent but often uncommonly lucky before last week's victory, and now we're seemingly far too close to witnessing the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.


Liverpool's lineup questions basically begin and end with Steven Gerrard's participation. Will he replace Henderson or Allen? Unlikely. But starting in the front three seems likely, replacing either Sterling or Lallana with the other at right wing-back. Or maybe both Sterling and Lallana are the wing-backs, with Moreno left out. Or with Sterling up front and Sturridge – still finding his form, to put it nicely – in a break-glass-if-needed case on the bench. No matter how well Liverpool are humming along, it's hard to imagine Gerrard left out of his last M62 Derby.

Otherwise, the lineup writes itself given the state of team and squad. Mignolet in goal; Can, Skrtel, and Sakho in defense; Henderson and Allen in midfield; Coutinho as one of the two attacking midfielders. Balotelli is back from illness, Lucas is back in training, but you'd assume either would be options off the bench, at most.

Meanwhile, Manchester United. Van Gaal seems to have settled on a four-man defense of late, after attempting to shoehorn the United side into a 3-5-2. With van Persie and Wilson absent through injury, United will probably line up in the 4-1-4-1 which saw them at the peak of their powers against Tottenham last week rather than the more frequent 4-4-2 diamond.

That XI was De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Blind; Carrick; Mata, Herrera, Fellaini, Young; Rooney. And given how well they played against Spurs, I'd be surprised if it were much different than that tomorrow. But it's not as if United are lacking in options. In addition to Wilson and van Persie, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo are doubtful, but Di Maria is back from suspension, and could replace either Herrara or Mata. If Shaw (or Rojo) is available, Blind could move into midfield, a 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-1-4-1. Maybe Van Gaal finds faith in Falcao, reverting to 4-4-2 diamond, wanting to start with two strikers against Liverpool's three-man defense. Regardless, Rooney's in excellent form, Van Gaal's figured how to put Fellaini's height and elbows to full use, and United have kept a clean sheet in its last three league fixtures.

The reverse fixture was both Liverpool's turning point and emblematic of each side. Liverpool, its in first match as a 3-4-2-1, out-shooting and out-playing the opposition but let down by poor finishing and exceptional goalkeeping. United, both potent and lucky. Liverpool haven't conceded three goals in a match since then. Liverpool have conceded just three goals in its last nine league matches. In total. But United have scored at least once in its last eight league matches, have only failed to tally just once in 2015 (at Southampton, still the league's best defense).

It's something of an irresistible force against an immovable object, which remains slightly unbelievable. But someone will be moving a lot further away from Champions League qualification tomorrow.

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