The two most successful clubs in English football will face off in this weekend’s standout Premier League fixture at Anfield on Sunday afternoon as pacesetters, Liverpool face fading force, Manchester United in the North-West derby
The Reds remain unbeaten in the top flight after 16 matches and head into this high-profile match sitting top of the division, whereas 20-time champions United are down in sixth place.
Not since March 1990 have Liverpool had a bigger points margin heading into a top-flight match against their arch-rivals, with the gap currently standing at 16 points as a result of the sides’ contrasting starts to the season.
Liverpool have dropped points in just three games this term and are now the last unbeaten side standing following defeats for past two champions Chelsea and Manchester City over the past three weeks.
With Man City falling to a 2-0 at Stamford Bridge last weekend, the Reds stand a point clear at the summit. The task for Jurgen Klopp’s men is to now live with the pressure that comes with being the best in the country, with another five months to see out.
This is not exactly new territory for the Merseyside outfit, having mounted a few notable title challenges in the recent past, but the group of players put together by Klopp certainly seems to be made of far sterner stuff – from summer signing Alisson Becker in goal through to arguably the division’s most talented player in Mohammed Salah up top.
Strengthening at the back with the addition of Alisson during the off-season, six months after bringing in club-record signing Virgil van Dijk from Southampton has more than paid off for Liverpool. Just six Premier League goals have been shipped all season, leaving them on course to break the record set by Chelsea in 2004-05.
In fact, the Reds have not conceded more than one goal in a game in any of their last 19 league outings – their best run of defensive form since the late 1970s and they continue to score goals at an impressive rate at the other end of the pitch.
Salah has made a mockery of those who suggested that his 2017-18 goalscoring return would be a one-off, racking up 10 goals already this time around to joint-lead the scoring charts. The Egyptian has opened the scoring in seven matches, meanwhile, and scored the winner six times – both league-high tallies.
However, Liverpool’s famed front three of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane – which has been broken apart at times this season with Klopp using a 4-2-3-1, depending on the opponents – have failed to score or assist a goal in a Premier League game against United in nearly 1,000 combined minutes on the field.
All three men played in a part in last weekend’s 4-0 demolition of Bournemouth, which was arguably the first time that Klopp’s men have truly swept aside a team since cruising to a 3-0 win over Southampton at the end of September.
That was followed up by a tense 1-0 win over Napoli in the Champions League in midweek, keeping the Reds on course for silverware on multiple fronts as they embark on a tough run of games that sees them face United, Arsenal and Man City in the next three weeks.
Come through that run unscathed and supporters really can begin to believe that this will finally be their year.
While Liverpool fans have plenty to be excited about, it is a different matter entirely for those of a Manchester United persuasion. One win from their last five league matches shows just how far the mighty have fallen.
The Red Devils did at least manage to end their four-game winless run last weekend with a 4-1 triumph over Fulham, though it was a case of one step forward and two steps back due to their performance against Valencia in midweek.
A 2-1 loss at the Mestalla would prove costly for United as it denied them top spot in their group, meaning a difficult last-16 tie in the Champions League when European action resumes two months from now.
Even accounting for the win against Fulham, Jose Mourinho’s underperforming side have taken only six points from the last 15 on offer. A defeat to neighbours Man City was followed up by successive draws with Crystal Palace, Southampton and then Arsenal.
Momentum just seems impossible to come by at the moment for the country’s most successful side, last winning back-to-back matches at the beginning of November.
United’s scoring stats are down on last season, their defensive stats are down on last season and, as a result, their points tally is substantially down on last season. This time 12 months ago, the Red Devils had nine points more and were only kept off the top spot by the blistering form of runaway champions Man City.
Mourinho may have repeatedly claimed that his side overperformed in finishing second last time out, but there can be no excuses about their constant below-par showings this term, most recently in the defeat to Valencia when simply failing to turn up.
Their 26 goals against in the Premier League is just two fewer than the total they conceded throughout the whole of 2017-18, with just two clean sheets being kept – incredibly, only five other sides have a worse defensive record.
Mourinho can at least fall back on a decent record at Anfield, winning on half of his eight visits there in the Premier League to give him the best win percentage among managers with 5 plus such games in the competition.
It was 1990 the last time United were this far behind Liverpool at Christmas. Victory on Sunday will close the margin slightly, but even then there will be lingering doubts over whether Mourinho is the man to bring the glory days back to Old Trafford.
United’s last two trips to Anfield have resulted in goalless draws after Mourinho adopted an ultra-cautious approach, yet the Portuguese said his side are capable of fighting for victory despite their injuries.
“We know that we are going to play against the leaders, against a team on a high, but we have our qualities, we have our potential,” he said.
“Even with the problems we have and the doubts in terms of team choice, of tactics, approach, philosophy, we have doubts about everything. We are going to arrive with the players we have available and going to have a team capable of going there and fight for the victory.”
Liverpool are looking to pick up a sixth successive victory in the league. However, Klopp has yet to get the better of Mourinho’s United having not beaten them since the Portuguese took charge in 2016, drawing three and losing once.
The fixture is never short of drama and Mourinho usually enjoys the big occasion as an underdog, as he showed in last month’s impressive 2-1 victory over Juventus in Turin.
Meanwhile, Manchester City will try to get back to their winnings ways after their first loss of the season last weekend to Chelsea as they host Everton in today’s early kick-off at the Etihad Stadium.
The Citizens were seemingly in cruise control and flying at the top of the table until last week’s defeat to Chelsea. Seven back to back victories since their goalless draw with Liverpool back in October demonstrates City’s dominance in the league.