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Tale of the tape, tactical battle, predictions

The rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United has been quiet in recent years due to the dominance of Jurgen Klopp’s side, but United are back to their best this season and are top of the Premier League, searching their first title since 2013 and looking well-placed to do it. Not only that, but if Man United win, they could do something that seemed impossible not that long ago: go six points clear at the top of the table over the defending champions, Liverpool, and seven points above the previous title winners, Manchester City.

Oh, and if Sunday’s league game wasn’t enough, Man United host Liverpool a week later, on Jan. 24, in the FA Cup fourth round. (Stream LIVE on ESPN+, U.S. only.)

– Scholes: How Man United can pass Liverpool test
– Connelly: Premier League transfer targets on a budget
– Marcotti: Why it’s a big deal Man United are top

However, all roads to glory run through a trip to Anfield, where Liverpool haven’t lost a league game since May 2017 — a run of 67 matches without defeat. (Sunday also marks four years to the day since Man United last won there.) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s still looking for his first win over Liverpool, having drawn twice and lost twice in four attempts. Will Sunday’s clash of second vs. first in the Premier League be the end of both streaks?

ESPN’s reporters prepare you for the game of the weekend. Here’s what you need to know.

Jump to: Tale of Tape | Tactical battle | Predictions

Tale of the Tape: Who has the edge?

Goalkeeper

Alisson is one of the top goalkeepers in the world at present (ranked No. 2 in 2020’s FC 100), but is not helped at Liverpool by the ever-changing backline in front of him. The Brazilian sits alongside fellow countryman Ederson as the Premier League’s finest stoppers, and he’s conceded just two goals in his past four games — Liverpool’s struggles have been at the other end at the field.

Over at United, David de Gea’s form has stabilised after his early-season jitters. He kept a clean sheet at Burnley last time out, and held off a late Aston Villa surge for United’s key 2-1 win on New Year’s Day.

Edge: Liverpool. At the moment, Alisson is the stronger goalkeeper, but neither is in peak form.

Defence

Liverpool’s backline is shaky. Without the injured duo Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, Liverpool have coped admirably at the back, with fringe players filling in, midfielders slotting in out of position and youth players learning on the job in the top-flight ahead of schedule. But Joel Matip remains an injury doubt for Sunday’s top-of-the-table game and missed group training on Wednesday; if he’s unavailable, Liverpool will likely field a back four with a pair of midfielders playing at center-back instead.

Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have filled in there before, along with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson at full-back, but that leaves Liverpool short further up the field — it’s simply solving one problem by creating another. Matip’s fitness is key for Liverpool here, but Jurgen Klopp could yet give Nate Phillips or Rhys Williams a chance to impress.

United’s back four is a little more settled. Eric Bailly has been in superb form since he returned to the first team, and he’s working well in tandem alongside captain Harry Maguire. Victor Lindelof is struggling with a back problem, so Bailly is likely to start while Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw will start at full-back.

Edge: Manchester United. With Liverpool’s injuries, United offer a more settled outlook at the back.

play

1:21

ESPN FC’s Shaka Hislop is stunned by what Mark Clattenburg admitted to in regards to his decision-making on the pitch.

Midfield

Liverpool’s midfield line-up is dependent on who fills in at the back, but they still have several exciting options with Thiago, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Henderson and Curtis Jones all available. Naby Keita was also absent from training earlier in the week: if Henderson lines up alongside Fabinho in defence, expect Liverpool to go with Milner, Thiago and Wijnaldum as their middle three.

United are monitoring Nemanja Matic’s fitness after he was forced off late in United’s 1-0 win at Burnley, but they have Fred, Scott McTominay and a rejuvenated Paul Pogba all fit. Those three could start at Anfield despite Solskjaer preferring to play two central midfielders. With doubts over Martial’s fitness, he could push Pogba further forward, which worked so well against Burnley earlier in the week: Pogba scored the winner on Tuesday and put in his finest performance for United this season.

Edge. Liverpool… just.

Forwards

Liverpool’s front three are still the best in the Premier League with Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino the trio who fired them to the title last season. They clicked beautifully in their 7-0 demolition of Crystal Palace on Dec. 19, but Liverpool have scored just one in their past three league games, which came when Mane scored in their 1-1 draw at home against West Brom on Dec. 27. Firmino scored twice against Palace but has just five in 17 games this season and three assists, so there is a concern.

Off the bench they’ll look to Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri for impact, with Diogo Jota out injured.

United have been grinding out one-goal wins to get to the top of the table and are sweating on the fitness of Anthony Martial after he limped off against Burnley. Marcus Rashford remains a threat off the flank, while Edison Cavani has slotted into life nicely at United too. Yet their main man is still Bruno Fernandes. He scored the winner against Aston Villa in that key 2-1 win on New Year’s Day and sits sixth in the league on xG with 9.18 and second on xA with 4.46.

Edge: Liverpool. The Reds are still top of the league in xG (expected Goals, which measures the quality of scoring chances) and xA (expected Assists, which is the likelihood that a pass will become an assist) and have a more settled, lethal front three, though Fernandes has transformed United’s attack in the year he’s been at Old Trafford and will cause Liverpool’s defence problems.

Manager

Jurgen Klopp has won a Champions League and Premier League in the last two seasons, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is yet to win a piece of silverware at United. But Solskjaer has confounded the naysayers by leading United to the top of the league for the first time this late in the season since Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge. United’s coach is yet to record a win over Klopp, with two draws and two defeats to his name, so he has to do it all if he is to guide his United side to a key win on Sunday.

Edge: Liverpool. — Tom Hamilton

– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Stream FA Cup matches live on ESPN+ (U.S. Only)

Tactical battle

Manchester United and Solskjaer would probably take a point on Sunday given their position in the table, but there’s also an opportunity to win at Anfield for the first time since 2016. United haven’t lost away from home in the Premier League since their last trip to Anfield almost a year ago, and ahead of the weekend, Klopp has selection problems to solve.

Without Van Dijk, Gomez and possibly Matip, Klopp could be forced into playing midfielders Fabinho and Henderson in the centre of his defence. And without two players normally guaranteed to start a big game in midfield, that area of Klopp’s team will also need to be reshuffled.

Even with his team flying over the past two years, Klopp has appeared quite cautious when going head-to-head with Solskjaer’s United. There have been occasions when United have seemed destined for a humiliating defeat, only for the game to be tight and attritional. Klopp, like Pep Guardiola in December, will be concerned about United’s ability to counter-attack quickly, and it may mean they stand off more than they would in any other fixture.

Solskjaer has picked a five-man defence in his past two meetings with Liverpool, and he could do so again. He has the personnel to do it with Maguire, Lindelof, Bailly, Axel Tuanzebe and even Shaw available to fill the three roles in the centre of defence; Shaw, Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles are all capable of playing as wing-backs.

Solskjaer will know all about the threat of Liverpool’s front three, but he will also be wary of full-backs Robertson and Alexander-Arnold running past his wide men and finding space to get forward. However, one downside to Henderson being used as a makeshift centre-back is that he can’t help the full-backs attack as much as they would like because he’s not in midfield to cover the space behind.

play

1:30

Craig Burley says Manchester United have surprised him so far, but doesn’t see them as title favourites.

Solskjaer, meanwhile, will have to watch out for Alexander-Arnold swinging early crosses toward Wan-Bissaka because he doesn’t always defend his back post as well as he could. Alexander-Arnold’s delivery in those situations is pinpoint and Wan-Bissaka will have to be careful he doesn’t switch off and lose runners looking to exploit the space behind him.

Despite their injury problems, Liverpool have plenty of reasons to be confident, particularly because Salah, Mane and Firmino are fit and because they just don’t lose league games at Anfield anymore. United, though, have made a lot of progress since their 2-0 defeat there in February 2020, and it says everything that of the starters that day, only six are guaranteed to start again on Sunday.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United in the Klopp/Solskjaer era has often seemed like a game nobody wants to lose, rather than one they’re desperate to win. Neither manager will say it in the build-up, but given Liverpool’s injuries and United’s recent record at Anfield, a draw may suit everyone.

Predictions

Liverpool 2, Manchester United 2. Fingers crossed for an action-packed, flowing game, but these ones are usually cagey affairs. Expect Liverpool to have the bulk of possession, but United to hit them on the counter-attack and get a valuable point at Anfield. — Tom Hamilton

Liverpool 1, Manchester United 1. Another tight game that nobody wants to lose. — Rob Dawson

Liverpool 1, Manchester United 2. Liverpool’s 67-game unbeaten run at Anfield in the Premier League must end sometime, and United travel there on Sunday in form and full of confidence. With key defenders missing, Liverpool will find it tough to contain United’s attacking players, so stand by as the league leaders get a big win. — Mark Ogden

Liverpool 1, Manchester United 1. Liverpool are the better side, but United are in better form. The points will be shared. — James Olley

Liverpool 1, Manchester United 0. Man United are in good form, but Liverpool’s extra days off since their last game (a week ago vs. Aston Villa in the FA Cup) should be the difference. — Gab Marcotti

Liverpool 2, Manchester United 1. The champions are the masters of delivering in these big games, and they will do it again this Sunday. United will compete because of their individual brilliance, but overall, I think that Liverpool’s collective strength will be too much for Solskjaer’s men. — Julien Laurens

Liverpool 2, Manchester United 1. At some point in the near or distant future, United will lose a close game again. Might as well be at Anfield against a team that’s had some time to stew over its disappointing Festive Period results (and already took out some frustration on Villa). — Bill Connelly

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