Liverpool Take Title Challenge to Old Trafford

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The two most successful clubs in English football – Manchester United and Liverpool take the centre stage in this weekend’s Premier League fixtures in a clash that would to a large extent shape this year’s winner.  While a win for the Devils would establish their position in the top-four, the Reds would be hoping for at least a draw to return to the summit of the table. With a Champions League progression hanging in the balance after their goalless draw at home to Bayern Munich, the Premier League remains the only likelihood for silverware for the Reds having been ousted of the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup

Manchester United may not be in the title race but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side could have a big say in who wins the Premier League starting with Sunday’s clash against Liverpool at Old Trafford.

Manchester City leads the Premier League on goal difference from Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool with both teams on 65 points, 14 ahead of fourth-placed United.

City does not feature in the Premier League this weekend as it faces Chelsea in the League Cup final, giving Liverpool an opportunity to return to the top of the table.

United still has to play City again in this campaign, but perhaps surprisingly to some, its fans would probably prefer the team to do more damage to Liverpool’s ambitions.

Liverpool hasn’t claimed the league title since 1990 while United has won 13 in that period and its supporters love to remind their bitter north-west rival of that fact.

Local pride aside, however, this is also a crucial game for Solskjaer as he bids to convince the Old Trafford hierarchy that he is the right man to lead the club on a permanent basis after his interim period runs out at the end of this season.

The Norwegian is already a highly popular figure with United’s fans after leading the team to 11 wins in his first 13 games in charge and if he were to claim the scalp of Klopp’s Liverpool his approval ratings would go through the roof.

It was a defeat by Liverpool which offered Solskjaer his chance when Jose Mourinho was sacked following a limp 3-1 loss at Anfield in December.

United moved into the FA Cup quarterfinals with an impressive 2-0 win against Chelsea while Liverpool heads into this weekend’s game after a 0-0 home draw with Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

“It is a big game against Manchester United, it’s always big against them. It’s a game in hand as well and we look forward to that,” said Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson.

“It’s a huge game and they’re a different team playing some really good football, I think we need to be wary of them but they know what they’re coming up against and they need to be wary of us,” he added.

United is hoping Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard recover from muscle injuries in time to face Liverpool, the pair missed the Chelsea game after picking up the injuries in the Champions League defeat by Paris St. Germain last week.

“I don’t think we will see them in the next two games,” Ole said last Friday, “Let’s hope they heal quickly, but it looks like they might be out for two or three weeks.”

With Lingard and Martial unavailable, Solskjaer selected a three-pronged attack of Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford last time out. Alexis Sanchez stepped off the bench in west London and earned praise from his team-mates for working hard to secure a vital win. It will be fascinating to see which of the forwards starts against Liverpool. 

Meanwhile, David De Gea is expected to return after making way for Sergio Romero to start on Monday night. Spanish stopper has not missed a single minute of Premier League football this season and is determined to keep a third consecutive clean sheet, following the recent top-flight wins over Fulham and Leicester City.

In defence, Solskjaer can select between Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in the centre of defence. All four of them have started at least once in the last three matches, and it looks like Marcos Rojo is closing in on full fitness as well after training with the squad for several weeks. 

Ashley Young earned a one-match ban as a result of the yellow card he received in the match against Chelsea, but that suspension only applies in the FA Cup and he is therefore available to start against Liverpool.

It remains to be seen if experienced defenders Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian are available to return from injury this weekend.

“You look at their teamsheet or squad list and it’s full of stars. They came to the party and they have a fantastic team. They’ve got people back from injury as well which always helps and they’ve got a strong squad as well,” Robertson said.

United’s loss at Anfield in December resulted in manager Jose Mourinho getting the sack and Solskjaer was appointed as United’s interim boss. They have not lost in the league since, winning eight while drawing once to move up to fourth.

 “I think it is going to be a real big change (from December),” Wijnaldum told reporters after Liverpool’s 0-0 draw against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Since the new manager came in there is a new flow, they played good games and have won a lot and that is building confidence in the team.

“It’s also a home game for them so they will have a lot of confidence as they don’t have the problems they had before. It is going to be a difficult game but I’m looking forward to it.”

Meanwhile, the visitors are expected to welcome defender Virgil van Dijk back for the trip to Old Trafford, after he missed Liverpool’s 0-0 Champions League draw against Bayern Munich through suspension.

With centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez also missing, Jurgen Klopp was forced to select a pairing of Joel Matip and Fabinho at the heart ofdefence on Tuesday night. Yet, Van Dijk’s return could see the latter step into a midfield role.

The Brazilian, Fabinho, will likely start alongside two of Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita and James Milner in a midfield three.

Up front, Liverpool will almost certainly opt for the dynamic trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane who, between them, have netted 38 Premier League goals so far this campaign.

Trent Alexander-Arnold returned from injury to play at right-back against Bayern Munich and helped the Merseysiders to keep a clean sheet.

Avoiding defeat this weekend would also see Solskjaer claim a Premier League record of his own. It is quite clear the Norwegian coach’s start to life at United has been special, but when you delve into the stats you realise just incredible it has been.

Since taking over from Jose Mourinho in December of last year Solskjaer has won 25 points in his nine Premier League games as United caretaker manager.

Victory or a draw at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon would see him set a new record points total for a manager in their first 10 games in charge of a Premier League side.

Former Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink currently holds the record after accumulating 25 points in his opening 10 matches as manager in 2009.

The Dutch coach led his Chelsea side to eight wins with only defeat away at Tottenham and a goalless draw at home to Everton denting his own sensational spell as caretaker manager.

Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur will also hope to close the gap on City and its captain Harry Kane could be back in the starting line-up at Burnley on February 23 after a few weeks out with an ankle injury.