THIS is the end game.
Not literally the end game but the beginning of the end game. We could really do with starting the beginning of the end game by winning.
It’s fun to bill games as metaphorical cup finals. Often it’s just a dramatic device. On extremely rare occasions, the cap fits. Man United v Liverpool at Old Trafford this Sunday afternoon is as bonafide a “it’s like a cup final” game as it gets.
After this weekend there will be just 11 Premier Leagues to be fought out before the 2018-19 season is done. Liverpool have kind of let slip a clear initiative that they enjoyed for several weeks.
Defeat in Manchester this weekend will confirm a building feeling that champions City are not just back in the title race in a big way but comfortably in its driver’s seat. A draw keeps the enquiry open but would please City’s Pep Guardiola more than Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp.
The win though. A Liverpool win. That would be a tectonic shift. A Liverpool win would not just move The Reds three points ahead of City, it would position Liverpool to lead the run in from the front. City would know that Liverpool had opened up a clear length on them with the easier set of fixtures to play too.
Either team could recover from whatever plays out at Old Trafford, but there is an abiding sense that spirits will be broken if there is a clear winner on Sunday afternoon.
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Sidebar: I continue to discount Spurs and, although it wouldn’t surprise to see them finish ahead of either Liverpool or City, they will not finish ahead of both. Of that I’m near certain regardless of the fate tempted.
In this column, back in September, just before Liverpool travelled to London to play Spurs, I felt that to truly challenge for the league title this season, at some early juncture in the campaign, that Liverpool were going to need to put in a performance redolent of champions. Spurs were fancied themselves so to see them off in their own backyard would be a milestone of sorts.
Liverpool did indeed see them off and I don’t think it’s wrong to view that as a foundation result for all that has followed.
Liverpool performed like champions elect during an eight-match winning sequence that stretched across November and December. The landmark showing in that phase was perhaps the demolition of Man United at Anfield.
United were rendered so utterly ragged by a blood-sensing red pack that their manager Jose Mourinho was dismissed in the immediate wake of Liverpool’s 3-1 win.
To be champions, Liverpool must now put in a champions performance. The time for accepting defeat as an isolated act, or a draw as a contextual “decent result”, is truly over. Klopp’s team must dig the deepest. They simply must find a way to win.
That Solskjaer’s United are motivated to beat Liverpool this Sunday is not worth dwelling on. That Paul Pogba, formerly the world’s most expensive player, is in the form of his life, is a distraction. United’s recent long winning sequence is not our business. I’m beyond being arsed whether or not their form lads Lingard and Martial will be fit enough to face us or not.
Our truth is bigger than Manchester United’s. It would mean so much to them to beat Liverpool. It would mean more to Liverpool. It would mean the world to Liverpool. The whole world. All of it.
If Jürgen Klopp can harness the longing, the aching, the hunger within his team, within the club, with the fans, then only miracles will save United. Liverpool must find their power. It has been missing since the turn of the year.
Results have been manageable, moments have been impressive at times, but Liverpool have not shown as champions since demolishing Arsenal 5-1 at the end of December.
In his press conference, Klopp spoke of having decisions to make again as injury lists and illness based absenteeisms are diminishing. The manager longs to reinstate Fabinho at the heart of his team, in the number six holding midfield role.
He may well give the Brazilian the chance to run Liverpool’s game from his favoured berth this Sunday but there is an alternative scenario. Fabinho, whisper it, could be the next best defender at Liverpool behind Virgil van Dijk. Make no mistake, there will be a temptation to pair the two in defence against United.
In midfield, I expect Klopp to persist with Naby Keita. Keita is improving with every appearance and if Liverpool are to seize their moment it may well be because Naby has decided to seize his. He will be partnered by Gini Wijnaldum in all probability and the pair accompanied in a three-man midfield by either Fabinho or Jordan Henderson.
Offensively, it will be fascinating to see if Klopp again adjusts his setup, as he did for United in December. Then Sadio Mane shifted from his left wing home to the right hand side of the pitch and was able to assist Mo Salah and Nathaniel Clyne in overloading in an area where United were more fragile.
Now, perhaps more than then, all of United’s attacking gifts play down their left. If Klopp matches them up against Trent Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Mane then we may be in for one lopsided game of football. It may well be decided by who blinks first, because these players can’t all attack at the same time.
It’s a game I both can’t wait for and yet dread. I will be inside Old Trafford watching the game through my fingers.
No horror shows please, Reds. There’s too much at stake now.
Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Fabinho, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Keita; Mane, Salah, Firmino
Kick off: 2.15pm, Sunday
Referee: Michael Oliver
Odds by Redsbet: Man Utd 43-20, Draw 49-20, Liverpool 27-20
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Well, if I wasn’t excited/in bits already, I am now. It’s been building to this all along. Now olly is talking about letting Fergie do the team talk. The tanks have been parked on the lawn, it is that hour. I don’t care how we do it but we must win, I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted us to win a league game as much as this, certainly not since Chelsea ‘14 and for an age before that. The sheer magnitude of what it could mean for us. They must not have the satisfaction of doing anything to undermine what we’re doing here. For the sake of all that’s good and holy, for romance and yearning, for balance in the universe and for the sake of humanity itself, let’s knock those fuckers out.
I hope to God that Solskjaer gets Fergie to do his team talk. It would signal such weakness to his players, that he needed Fergie to do it, that he didn’t feel up to it himself. He’d be an idiot to ask Ferguson to do that, for this of all games. Can you imagine Souness or Dalglish asking Paisley to step in for them before facing United at Anfield? Not on your life. It would be the biggest mistake Solskjaer has made since returning to Old Trafford, where his influence has all been based on the respect and relatinoship those players have for him. He’d be handing the game to us. Come on you reds!!
Surely if there’s one game at any point in any season where a draw is a decent result, it’s this one. I think our biggest problem tomorrow won’t be keeping them out, though that won’t be straightforward, so much as scoring ourselves. In an effort to keep things tight, I anticipate a lack of runners from midfield and the front 3 having to go it alone. I’m obviously aiming for a post that ages terribly, but I do think Salah will struggle again and a lot will depend on Mané. If you offered me a 0-0 right now, I’d snap your hand off.
United are resurgent under OGS and with Ferguson in the background.
I think their whole team and their supporters have their positive attitude back, which is going to be the worst thing for us if we go behind early.
And then there’s De Gea. Always seems to stop those shots near him. Since our players seem to have forgotten lately of how to be clinical in and outside the area — this is going to make it easy for him.
PSG exposed their problem in spades, though they also have the talent to do so. So I wonder if Jurgen or OGS learns from that game. We’ll see tomorrow.
It’s going to be tough match, and maybe an important one at that (if we win or lose) for the rest of the season.
Come on you Reds!
The mancs are supposedly bringing in Ferguson for the team talk. Can we line up Danny Murphy?
Dont concede the first goal. If that happens, MU will have us right where they want us. I am anticipating an intense and tight match. Not many shots on target for both sides. If the players want to win this League, then they to show how much they want it on the pitch. I’d be massively disappointed if the Mancs show more desire to win the game than us.