Liverpool v Manchester United: Seven things we should expect at Anfield
Liverpool host Manchester United on Sunday in a fixture which is likely prove crucial in the battle for fourth place. Here we look at seven things we should expect at Anfield.
Brendan Rodgers' team have fought their way back into Champions League contention playing in an attacking, high-tempo 3-4-2-1 formation.
The game will be crucial to the prospects of both sides for next season, who are separated by just two points. Defeat for Liverpool could see Manchester United open up a five point gap and with only eight matches to follow after this game, that may be a step too far.
Liverpool tried to be defensive and cautious at the start of the season as Brendan Rodgers struggled to find his best team in the wake of Luis Suarez leaving the club. Now he has found his best team, a team full of attacking verve and danger, even if they didn't show it at Swansea, Rodgers should not be tempted to err on the side of caution in the hope of keeping Manchester United contained.
The strength of Louis van Gaal's team lays with the attackers, their defence is a source of weakness, especially the centre-backs. Rodgers should not hand the visitors the initiative by starting slowly.
Gerrard has enjoyed many tussles with United during his 17-year career at Liverpool, but he is no longer guaranteed a place in the starting XI. The Liverpool captain was left out of the team that beat Swansea 1-0 on Monday, but came off the bench just after the hour.
Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen have looked good in the middle during Gerrard's absence, so Brendan Rodgers is facing a dilemma.
Does he give Gerrard one last crack at United before he departs for the MLS or stick with the midfield which has served him so well during the skipper's absence?
Rodgers should return his veteran captain into the midfield. Joe Allen has impressed in the 34-year-old's absence but Gerrard has vast experience in games of this magnitude and should start.
The former England skipper has shown his age at times this season but he has been most vulnerable when playing in a holding role against teams who attack with pace. Although United showed that against Spurs - and will try to do so again at Anfield - generally this season they have played a slower, more direct game.
Liverpool will want to monopolise possession and Gerrard is perfect at that.
DANIEL STURRIDGE BACK ON THE SCORESHEET
The England striker has not looked himself since returning from injury, with just three goals in 12 games since New Year's Eve.
But Sturridge proved last season that he loves the biggest stage, scoring five goals in games against United, Everton and Arsenal, as well winning a crucial penalty at Old Trafford.
United's defence was never questioned by a terrible Tottenham performance but they can be expected to face stiff questions by the Reds. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are far from the most secure centre-back partnership in the division, prone to lapses in concentration and errors in judgement.
Sturridge has no better time to score just his second goal in a month.
A BETTER DEFENSIVE PERFORMANCE FROM LIVERPOOL
When the two clubs last met Liverpool were absolutely stuck in the mire. Three of their back five from that day will not start and the Reds will be all the better for it.
Brad Jones, with his immaculately coiffured hair, was thrust into the game at the expense of Simon Mignolet - who is now in brilliant form - playing his first Premier League match since 16 March, 2013 (a game Liverpool lost 3-1). The Australian was awful and was blamed for two goals.
Glen Johnson has not started a Premier League game since, although he has been injured for a portion of that, and doesn't fit in with Rodgers' new system, while £20m summer signing Dejan Lovren is now out of the team and only plays when needed.
Even Alberto Moreno, taken off after 68mins in the game, plays a much different role now as a wing-back and has looked much better.
Liverpool had some great chances at Old Trafford but were let down by a soft defence - don't expect the same this time.
NO CHANGE FOR VAN GAAL
Manchester United produced their best performance of the season against Spurs on Sunday but things are already becoming complicated for Van Gaal.
British record signing Angel Di Maria is back from suspension and Robin van Persie and Luke Shaw back from injury.
Van Gaal may be tempted to put those three back into his starting line-up but he should stick with the team that played so well against Spurs. It's a brave move to leave out £59.7million player in one of the biggest games of the season, but Di Maria's performances have not warranted it. Juan Mata was sensational against Spurs and deserves to keep his place.
United still have to face Manchester City (h), Chelsea (a) and Arsenal (h) this season, while Liverpool still have trips to the Emirates and Stamford Bridge.
It could be argued that the Reds have a slightly easier run in than their rivals, so the Dutchman will need to decide if it is worth the risk going for three points.
ASHLEY YOUNG TO PLAY A CRUCIAL ROLE
No player has performed better, bar David De Gea, under his new manager than Ashley Young. The winger was snubbed by Roy Hodgson for his England squad on Thursday but was fully deserving of a call - especially as Andros Townsend managed to make it into the 23.
Young will be hugely important for United in this game because he is the one attacking player who has genuine pace. With Liverpool likely to continue in their 3-4-2-1 formation, Young could find himself with plenty of room to attack 21-year-old Emre Can.
The German has been great in his first season at the club and will be a real star in the future. But Eden Hazard proved in the Capital One Cup semi-final that he can be tempted into making silly fouls and be drawn out of position if the movement is clever enough.
Young may get even more room on the left if Rodgers continues with Raheem Sterling as a right wing-back, as he has done in recent games.
LONG BALL TO FELLAINI MAY NOT WORK
United fans saw far fewer long balls (or long passes) to the head of Marouane Fellaini against Tottenham, where he won seven of his 12 aerial battles.
But should United employ the tactic against Liverpool, they will come up against one of the better players in the Premier League at defending the high ball. Martin Skrtel has won 91 aerial duels this season, 69.5 per cent, compared to just 58 per cent (66) for Fellaini.
The Slovakian defender, along with defensive colleagues Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can, have their weak spots, but fronting up to the physicality of the Belgian should not be one of them.
ARE LIVERPOOL STRONG ENOUGH AT THE BACK TO COPE WITH UNITED?
That would have been a strange question a few weeks ago, when United looked weak in attack, but they were impressively clinical in their 3-0 win over Tottenham last weekend. Wayne Rooney grabbed the headlines after his knockout goal celebration but Marouane Fellaini was equally as destructive during the match. The Belgian, playing in the number 10 role, caused Spurs all sorts of problems with his height and strength and he took his goal superbly. Liverpool will have to keep him quiet to stop United.
WAS UNITED'S WIN OVER SPURS JUST A FLASH IN THE PAN?
Eight months after promising everything would soon click into place, Louis van Gaal's team finally put on a performance last weekend that had all the hallmarks of a victory of the Sir Alex Ferguson era. United played with pace, flair, width and brutality in front of goal against a team that is also fighting for a top-four finish. The challenge for Van Gaal now is to ensure his team put on a repeat performance at the home of their bitter rivals.
WILL UNITED KEEP THEIR DISCIPLINE?
One of the key issues for Van Gaal in big matches like this is discipline. He thinks it is vitally important to keep all 11 players on the pitch. Unfortunately for him, when United went to Manchester City last November, Chris Smalling did not get the memo. The defender earned a second yellow card in the 39th minute for a reckless tackle on James Milner and United lost to a City team which was there for the taking. Angel di Maria was also sent off in the recent FA Cup defeat to Arsenal. Van Gaal will remind his players they need to stay on the pitch, but will they listen?
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE DI MARIA?
Di Maria missed the victory over Spurs because of his dismissal against Arsenal, and if truth be told, United did not miss him one bit. Van Gaal's team looked far more destructive with Juan Mata wide on the right. The Spaniard carved open the Spurs defence on many occasions and he relished his physical battle with Danny Rose. Van Gaal has put a lot of trust in Di Maria even though his form has deteriorated rapidly since the end of September, but can he really drop Mata for the £59.7million man?
Belfast Telegraph Digital