WHEN Manchester United and Liverpool face off on Sunday there are many fascinating battles that will be played out in front of millions of viewers worldwide. Here is a look at a few key areas that may prove decisive over the 90 minutes.
Liverpool’s mental block
Manchester United’s record at Old Trafford against Liverpool has been formidable since Gerard Houllier departed from Anfield.
Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool won 4-1 back in 2009 but remains as the only success that the Reds have accrued in their last nine visits to the home of their biggest rivals.
Too often in this fixture the visiting side have sought to cancel United out and play conservatively. Perhaps United’s irresistible attacking form and shaky defensive performances this season will force Brendan Rodgers to try something a little different this time around.
United’s defensive vulnerability is no secret and Liverpool do possess enough pace and guile going forward to cause the league leaders problems. Invariably at Old Trafford, Liverpool have sat deep and unsuccessfully attempted to soak up pressure and counter United.
The results would suggest that a new formula is required and while Liverpool attempting to go for the jugular is unlikely, more ambition must be on display than on the Reds recent visits to Manchester. Liverpool need only look at Spurs’ and Newcastle’s approaches when they faced up to United this season to see how to exploit their opponents weaknesses.
Both clubs scored three times at Old Trafford and showed how genuine attacking intent must be present when you face off against Ferguson’s side. Liverpool’s Old Trafford inferiority complex must be banished if they are to attack with conviction and ultimately prevail.
The unheralded England midfielders
As always in these high profile games, midfield is a key area. If you had said in the summer that Jordan Henderson and Michael Carrick would be a key battle in this game you’d likely have been laughed at, but such is the ever evolving nature of the Premier League that the much maligned pair are likely to face off against each other on Sunday in an important duel.
Henderson’s recent form allied with his incredible energy levels makes him a likely starter for Brendan Rodgers’ side this weekend. Deploying him ahead of Gerrard and Lucas in midfield would allow the former Sunderland man to put Michael Carrick, United’s play-maker, under sustained pressure.
While he may not offer the goal threat that Jonjo Shelvey or Steven Gerrard would for Liverpool from that position, Henderson’s work without the ball in that area could be vital if Liverpool are to disrupt United’s passing game.
If Carrick is allowed time and space, he will undoubtedly get United ticking and make Liverpool suffer. He may not be Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, but Carrick is in arguably the best run of form in his United career and has the ability to hurt Liverpool with his long range passing.
His vision and technique mean that he is a constant supply line for United’s wingers and Robin van Persie. He is an under-appreciated member of this United team and his contributions, while often ignored, are vital.
If Liverpool are to get a grip on the game, they must get a grip of Carrick first and Jordan Henderson represents their best shot as doing so.
United’s flying wingers and Liverpool’s ‘second’ full back
With Jose Enrique ruled out of the game with a hamstring injury, United will have one definite area of Liverpool’s defence to target. Whoever slots into the back four alongside Agger, Skrtel and Johnson for Liverpool will be in for a testing afternoon.
Stewart Downing may return to left-back, in which case he will likely be up against the pace and power of Antonio Valencia who essentially won United all three points at Anfield earlier in the season with his lung busting 50 yard sprint to win the decisive penalty kick.
Valencia is as uncomplicated as he is effective. He hugs the touchline, keeps the width for his team and looks to beat his marker on the outside and deliver at every opportunity. He’s not been at the top of his game this season but he remains a huge threat and Downing’s lack of natural defensive instincts could mean that Brendan Rodgers selects Andre Wisdom instead.
If that is the case then Glen Johnson will play at left-back and have to deal with Valencia but on the opposite flank United will surely look to exploit the inexperience of Wisdom. Ashley Young will probably start wide on the left for United and his trickery and speed will be something United will look to utilise against the teenager. Isolating the young full back, who is a natural centre-half, will undoubtedly be in Alex Ferguson’s thoughts.
It is of the utmost importance then, that Liverpool guard against this. Lucas and Steven Gerrard will likely be screening the back four and they must play with discipline and intelligence if they are to support Wisdom or Downing sufficiently.
For decades now United have had dangerous, direct wingers with excellent delivery and this year is no different. The Manchester club have quality in the wide areas again and Liverpool’s ability to withstand the tests from the flanks will be crucial. United’s primary supply-line is so often crosses from wide areas and given Jose Enrique’s absence it is likely to be the same again on Sunday.
The Aces in the Packs
When you talk about potential match winners for either Manchester United or Liverpool then two men stand alone. They are the best two players in the Premier League currently.
Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez are contrasting players in style but both have had the burden of carrying their teams for long periods of this season. With 31 league goals between them, they are the two players that the spotlight will rightly shine brightest on come kick-off time.
Van Persie comes into the game amid a sea of tranquillity. The Dutchman’s form has been outstanding, he has taken to his new club like a duck to water and his confidence is as high as it possibly could be, as demonstrated by his exquisite goal in the FA Cup against West Ham last weekend.
Suarez on the other hand will be under huge scrutiny after ‘handball-gate’ and the whole Patrice Evra affair being in the public eye again this week. It is a good job for Liverpool that the Uruguayan seems to thrive on the media circus that constantly surrounds around him.
If Liverpool are to come away from Old Trafford with three points then it is difficult to look past Suarez as their match winner. The Reds will have to ensure that he is provided adequate support though, as sometimes even he can’t do it all on his own.
On occasion, especially against the top teams Suarez has ploughed a lone furrow and become isolated, frustrated and ultimately less effective for Liverpool, and whoever is alongside him in Liverpool’s attack at Old Trafford must help share the creative responsibilities.
Conversely, van Persie can not only win games for United with his individual brilliance, he can rely on a higher and more consistent quality of service from his team mates and that is the main difference between the two sides right now.
So will it be van Persie’s serenity and lethal touch in front of goal that wins the day, or can Suarez’s perpetual motion and beguiling skills damage United’s title challenge? It should be fun finding out.
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