16 March 2016

Liverpool at Manchester United 03.17.16

4:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Liverpool lead 2-0 on aggregate

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 United (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 3-0 City (h)
United: 1-1 West Ham (h); 0-2 Liverpool (a); 0-1 West Brom (a)

Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 2-0 United (h); 1-0 Augsburg (h), 0-0 Augsburg (a); 0-0 Sion (a), 2-1 Bordeaux (h), 1-0 Kazan (a), 1-1 Kazan (h), 1-1 Sion (h), 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
United: 0-2 Liverpool (a); 5-1 Midtjylland (h), 1-2 Midtjylland (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Lallana, Milner 2; Benteke, Can, Firmino, Ibe, Sturridge 1
United: Memphis 5; Rooney 4; Herrera, Martial, Rashford 2; Fellaini, Mata, Smalling 1

Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB)

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can
Lallana Firmino Coutinho

If it ain't broke...

Seemingly, the only potential alteration is Milner for Lallana. United won't be exactly the same as a week ago, either in personnel or tactics, but Liverpool's XI should be able to cope with the changes. Last week, Liverpool lost nothing in defense with Lallana tracking back instead of Milner, and gained an awful lot in attack. Lallana has been excellent lately, especially in Liverpool's last three matches. Milner has been simply been Milner, for better and for worse. Milner's best attributes are his work rate, which Lallana has pretty much matched; his crossing, which Liverpool don't really need; and his set plays, which haven't even been very good. There's a more than reasonable chance that the vice-captain comes back into the side, but I'd rather he not.

Otherwise, Lucas and Kevin Stewart are out for a couple more weeks, Skrtel remains with the u21 squad in an attempt to rebuild his match fitness, Flanagan's ineligible for the Europa League. There aren't many other changes Liverpool can make, but there aren't many other changes Liverpool should make.

Meanwhile, the same United players who were absent through injury last week are still absent this week: Rooney, Valencia, Young, Shaw, Jones, and Borthwick-Jackson. However, Lingard will return from suspension, which should help United's problems on the right flank immensely.

But United have to make changes, more than just Lingard for (most likely) Rashford. I don't know if van Gaal will give up on the Marouane Fellaini Experiment, but I sure would. His height made no difference on set plays, Liverpool matched his physicality, and he remains a liability, insanely lucky not to have been sent off or suspended for this leg. And he was equally awful in United's draw against West Ham on Sunday, with United recovering and equalizing only after substituting the Belgian. Fellaini is and was a reactive choice. United are better when United are proactive, and United will need to be proactive to overturn the 0-2 deficit.

There are a couple of things that United could do in midfield, depending on whether United want to play 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3. The former would be two from Carrick, Schweinsteiger, and Schneiderlin behind either Herrera or Mata. Herrera's also capable of playing a box-to-box next to one of those three players, behind the line of three attacking midfielders. The "all-out attack" version would see both Mata and Herrara (or, yes, maybe Fellaini) ahead of a single holder: probably Carrick, but maybe Schweinsteiger or Schneiderlin.

There's also a small doubt over what United's front three will be. It's probably Memphis on the left, Lingard on the right, and Martial up front. But Memphis, rather than Rashford, could be the one left out, with Martial cutting in from the left to supplement Rashford as the lone striker – which is how United lined up on Sunday. But, as with Fellaini, United improved and United equalized, through Martial, once Memphis replaced Rashford.

So, my guess is the XI that leveled the score at Old Trafford on Sunday. De Gea; Varela, Smalling, Blind, Rojo; Schweinsteiger, Carrick; Lingard, Herrera, Memphis; Martial. There remain weaknesses in this United side, but that's a cleverer and more controlling midfield than last week's, and a more cohesive front three than last week's.

For all their struggles away from Old Trafford, United are unbeaten in their last 10 home European matches (8W-2D), a record stretching back to Ferguson's last European game, which was a 1-2 loss to Real Madrid in the Round of 16. This season, they're won four and drawn one at home; away, they've won one, drawn one, and lost four.

And United have lost just one of their 2016 home matches in all competitions, 0-1 against Southampton back on January 23. Otherwise, six wins and one draw: the lone draw against West Ham on Sunday, the six wins against Swansea, Sheffield United, Stoke, Midtjylland, Arsenal, and Watford. But only two of those wins – 3-0 v Stoke, 5-1 v Midtjylland – have been by two or more goals. United kept a clean sheet in just three of the eight: 1-0 v Sheffield United, the aforementioned 3-0 v Stoke, and 1-0 v Watford.

An away goal could make all the difference: from United needing two just for extra time to United needing four to advance. Liverpool cannot simply sit deep and look to soak up pressure and look to counter-attack; Liverpool will probably press early on, attack early on, go in search of the tie-killing third. That's not to say Liverpool can't defend; they've conceded just twice in Klopp's seven European matches – a long ball over the top against Kazan, an insane error leading to an in-the-box indirect free kick against Bordeaux, and both of those goals came at Anfield – and have kept clean sheets in the last four.

But the rewards of an away goal – especially an early one, with Liverpool starting at a frenetic pace – seemingly outweigh the risks. Still, Liverpool will have to find a balance between goal-hunting and staying secure; one goal and United are right back in the tie.

It's all set up for a incredible fixture. Liverpool, the better side in the last leg with a lead going into the away leg. Manchester United, not out of it by any means, in front of their own crowd. Both sides needing to "save" their seasons. Undying rivals separated by little more than 30 miles.

It's a fixture which, no matter which way it goes, might well kill us all.

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