Irrespective of their position, Manchester United are still behind Liverpool, Manchester City in many aspects
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah in action with Manchester United's Harry Maguire (file photo: reuters)
On the face of it, in a Covid-ravaged world, sport offers very little context. A second and potentially more infectious variant of the novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc in UK. People are dying, major economies are reeling and job losses have been forcing families to make ends meet. And yet, the English Premier League is still being keenly followed across the globe, as also the fascinating Australia versus India Test series Down Under. Elite sport has provided a temporary escape route to fans amid the Covid gloom.
Manchester United versus Liverpool is biggest club football rivalry in the world, along with Real Madrid versus Barcelona. And after many years, United are going to play a match at Anfield as the Premier League leaders in January. For the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s title-winning farewell season in 2012-13, United top the table, three points ahead of defending champions Liverpool. It’s a shame that such a high-octane fixture will be played before empty stands, but millions of fans will be watching on TV, keeping Covid-forced troubles at arm’s length for those 90 minutes on Sunday.
United are unbeaten in 11 matches in the league. Last season, a 2-0 loss at Anfield saw them trail Liverpool by 30 points. A year down the line, they have their nose in front. Have United turned a corner under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? A tally of 36 points from 17 matches attests progress. Of course, in a strange season that is allowing very little recovery time between matches, and injuries and illnesses crippling almost every team, there’s a marked change in playing styles. Teams like Liverpool are not playing their usual high-press football, for that is high-risk as well.
United have benefited from the change, at the same time, however, they have thrived on some world-class presence in their side. Bruno Fernandes has become the first player to win the Premier League Player of the Month award four times in a calendar year. Marcus Rashford has improved a lot, although his finishing still remains a weak area. Edinson Cavani has brought in quality and of late, Paul Pogba has sprung to life, letting his football do the talking. When on song, Pogba becomes the team’s x-factor. United have also learnt to eke out wins when they aren’t playing well. An injury-time winner against
Wolverhampton Wanderers and a hard-fought win over Burnley spoke volumes for their resolve.
Solskjaer deserves credit for his handling of Pogba, completely ignoring the player’s motormouth agent Mino Raiola. Unlike Mikel Arteta’s management of Mesut Ozil at Arsenal, the United manager didn’t make Pogba an outcast. He has rather brought out the best in the World Cup winner. It has augured well for the team.
At the same time, United have floundered in big games this season. A humiliating 6-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur happened early in the season, when the players still didn’t have miles in their legs. But defeats to Arsenal and Manchester City in the league and League Cup semi final respectively put Solskjaer’s big-game nous under the scanner. The spectacular choke at Leipzig that ended United’s Champions League campaign this term, had been the worst. As Solskjaer spoke to the press on Friday to preview the Liverpool game, he said a win at Anfield would be an upset. “If you look at the last few seasons, it would be an upset and be a shock. Our position at the moment is product of all our hard work. We deserve to be where we are at the moment, but not many would have thought of another word than an upset if you had said it six weeks ago,” Solskjaer told reporters.
Liverpool haven’t lost at Anfield in the Premier League since May 2017 and United are winless in their last five visits there. So Solskjaer wisely played down his team’s chances. But make no mistake, deep down he knows that this is an excellent opportunity to get one over on Liverpool. The defending champions have collected only two points from their last three matches, having been held to draws West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United, and losing 1-0 at Southampton. Without Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool’s defence looks iffy, bereft of a leader. But the lengthy break before the United game has given Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp enough time to fix certain issues and up the ante.
Solskjaer’s United are still a work in progress and irrespective of their league position at the moment, they are behind Liverpool and Manchester City in many aspects. But they are following the right process and getting closer.
As Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher has said, a United win at Anfield on Sunday would “send shockwaves through the Premier League”.
“I still think people think United may fall away and Liverpool have still got that edge. But if they win at Anfield that would send shockwaves through the Premier League,” Carragher told Sky Sports.
An upset win will add momentum to United’s title-push. A defeat will give them the opportunity to reassess the gap — what needs to be done to bridge it.