14 January 2017

Liverpool at Manchester United 01.15.17

11am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 10.17.16
1-1 (a; Europa League) 03.17.16
2-0 Liverpool (h; Europa League) 03.10.16
0-1 United (h) 01.17.16

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Southampton (a); 0-0 Plymouth Argyle (h); 2-2 Sunderland (a)
United: 2-0 Hull (h); 4-0 Reading (h); 2-0 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 9; Lallana 7; Firmino 6; Coutinho, Milner 5; Origi 4; Can 3; Lovren, Sturridge, Wijnaldum 2; Henderson, Matip 1
United: Ibrahimovic 13; Mata, Pogba 4; Rashford 3; Martial, Mkhitaryan 2; Blind, Rooney, Smalling 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Henderson Wijnaldum
Firmino Origi Coutinho

Ugh. This fixture. I will never pretend to like it, at least until it's over. An age-old rivalry, which Liverpool has been on the lesser end of lately, a vastly important match for Liverpool's title race and top-four aspirations, and Liverpool currently on a three-match winless streak, for the first time this season. And that lot. Rooney. Ibrahimovic. Pogba. Mkhitaryan. Talented and mostly dramatically unlikeable, and now led by Jose Mourinho.


Liverpool's XI is contingent upon players who *might* be available, in attack, midfield, and defense.

Coutinho is the closest, having featured for 30 minutes at Southampton (and was the best player during that spell), but Henderson and Matip are both crucial and close, having been in training for the last couple of days.

I'll be optimistic here – probably for the only time this weekend – and guess all three to start. I don't need to convince you how important all three are to Liverpool's success. Without Coutinho, Liverpool's attack is prone to stuttering, especially now that Mané is away, and it'll mean either both Origi and Sturridge up front or, more likely, Lallana in the front three, where he's never hit the heights shown in midfield this season. Without Henderson, Can or Lucas plays at the base of midfield. Without Matip, it's Klavan in defense, which is sometimes perfectly fine and sometimes that game at Southampton on Wednesday.

If I'm being honest, Can instead of Henderson and Klavan instead of Matip is probably more likely, given that neither Henderson nor Matip has even made the bench yet, but the run-up to this fixture often features me lying to myself.

The only other line-up debate seems to be Origi or Sturridge. If either. Sturridge started against both Sunderland and Southampton, the latter an ignominious performance. But he's still Daniel Sturridge, even if an annoyingly growing section of the fanbase doesn't appreciate his abilities. Origi has been preferred in matches like this, away from home with Liverpool probably out of possession a fair amount, his pace and work without the ball preferred. But I write "if either" because Firmino has been even more preferred as the "striker" in matches like this. I just don't know if Liverpool's squad will allowed it; if Henderson and Coutinho both start, maybe we'll get a Firmino-Coutinho-Lallana front three (see: at Chelsea and City last season). But I doubt it, considering the squad, considering how the season's gone.

While Liverpool are without a win in their last three games, Manchester United are unbeaten in 15, since losing to Fenerbahce at the beginning of November. Their last league loss was a whooping at Chelsea back on October 23. They have nine consecutive wins in all competitions.

It took a little over two months, but a collection of expensive and talented footballers have actually become a team. It's become very Manchester United and very Jose Mourinho. Despite often overwhelming talent, they don't really bum rush you. They grind you down. They score offside goals. They somehow avoid multiple opportunities for red cards. They just win. Infuriatingly.

For the most part, one man has been responsible for the goals: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, top scorer with 13 with the next closest on four. I'm terrified of jinxing it by even mentioning, but he's never scored against Liverpool in five matches. His side's never beaten Liverpool: a loss and a draw with Juventus, two losses with Inter Milan, and a draw with Manchester United earlier this season.

Ibrahimovic was ill against Hull midweek but is almost certain to return. Which is a decent segue into a massive reason for Manchester United's renaissance. While Liverpool have struggled with absentees over the last few months, United absolutely haven't. Only Rojo's questionable through injury, while Bailly's away at the African Cup of Nations.

With a full contingent to choose from, my best guess at their XI is De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Darmian; Herrera, Carrick; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Mata; Ibrahimovic. But it's not as if they're without alternatives: Martial, Rashford, Rooney, Young, and Lingard in attack; Fellaini's elbows and afro for a different style in midfield; Blind, Rojo, and Shaw in defense.

Liverpool haven't beaten Manchester United in the league since 2013-14, since Moyes, since that 0-3 win at Old Trafford featuring three penalties and tons of schadenfreude. Liverpool lost all four league matches against United under van Gaal, three with Rodgers and one with Klopp. But there are also last season's Europa League meetings: a raucous 2-0 home win that should have been more and a 1-1 away draw that was all Liverpool needed to easily advance.

Still, precedent is hard when Manchester United add more than £100m worth of players every summer. And this also won't look like the last time these teams met, when United had yet to gel and United were peak bad-Mourinho: at least eight men perpetually in their own half and happy with 0-0, which they achieved regrettably easily.

Since Klopp became manager, Liverpool have lost just one of 13 league matches against the other top six teams: 0-1 to Manchester United at Anfield last March, bossing the game but unable to score before conceding on a late set play. Otherwise, six wins and six draws. It looks even better when considering just away matches: four wins and two draws, with both draws against Tottenham, Klopp's Liverpool yet to travel to Old Trafford for a league match.

Pick your omens.

You try not to put too much stock in one match, especially when it's just mid-January. But sometimes you can't help it. Especially when it's Liverpool against Manchester United.

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