There’s an old cliché that flies around each year when the fixtures are released – that there are some games you look for first when the matches are revealed. That’s a phrase often applied to the North West Derby between Liverpool and Manchester United. But for all that the clubs’ respective fanbases revel in the fixture, it’s been a while since this great match-up actually held major significance for both clubs in terms of their respective positions in the Premier League table.
That is all about to change, however, as Liverpool and Manchester United gear up for a major showdown at Anfield this Sunday. Under the guidance of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, United have experienced an impressive return to form in the league, with an unbeaten run of 11 games providing the kind of consistency that their Premier League rivals have lacked. They lead the table by three points, with Liverpool the side closest behind, making Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash all the more mouth-watering.
Liverpool sit as the favourites to win the match in the English Premier League odds, but Jürgen Klopp’s side have struggled to hit the right notes in the league of late. Successive draws against West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United over the festive period were followed by a hugely disappointing defeat to Southampton on the south coast. Should that run of poor form continue and they lose to United, the Reds will find themselves six points adrift in their quest to defend their Premier League title.
But in a strange way, despite United’s slight buffer in the league table, it feels as though the pressure is squarely on them ahead of Sunday. Throughout Solskjær’s reign, the team have frequently enjoyed good runs of form, but these are usually tempered by inevitable collapses somewhere down the line. The challenge for the Norwegian is to prove that, this time, United’s form is no flash in the pan, and that a sustained title challenge is on the cards. Victory over Liverpool would be a major statement of intent.
However, United’s recent record against their bitter rivals is not much to write home about. The Red Devils haven’t won at Anfield since January 2016, when a Wayne Rooney strike gave Louis van Gaal’s side all three points. Indeed, they haven’t defeated Liverpool at all for three years, since a Marcus Rashford masterclass earned them a 2-1 win at Old Trafford in March 2018. Add in the fact that Liverpool are on a run of 67 home matches undefeated, and the scale of the task on United’s hands becomes clear.
Liverpool’s rise to dominance under Klopp has coincided with a distinct malaise at Old Trafford, and the respective fortunes and misfortunes of each club has fed into the glee or despair at the other. From their lofty status as Premier League champions, Liverpool fans have been able to take joy in the struggles of United lower down the table, but as the current season edges towards the midway point, Solskjær’s men have a chance to wipe those smiles off Liverpool faces.
There’s a long way to go, but Solskjær has been quick to assert his side’s intentions ahead of this vital upcoming match. “It’s a brilliant position to be in,” he said. “Of course, we know we’re going to the champions who have had an unbelievable three-and-a-half-seasons, we know it’s going to be a difficult game for us, but we are ready for it.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better time to play them because we are in good shape, good form and hungry, which is a good thing because these boys want to get better and that’s the test of their character and quality.”
A test it will be indeed, but it’s the kind of challenge that can give clear indications of whether or not a team is really capable of challenging for the Premier League title, which United have not won since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. Breaking their duck at Anfield, and ending Liverpool’s unbeaten run, would finally give United’s fans something to boast about to their rivals, and it could well herald a return to the club’s dominance of times gone by.