On the evening of the 15th of January, it is expected that more than 600 million people will tune in to watch the most prestigious clash in English football – when Manchester United take on Liverpool at Old Trafford, countless nails will be bitten off, countless prayers will reverberate around the world, and social media frenzy will be at it's craziest.
Based on viewership figures alone, the clash is rated even higher than the El Clasico – and the presence of 2 proven winners at the touchline adds more spice to the contest than it has had in several years.
United and Liverpool both find themselves enjoying commendable form going into the match. While United could perhaps boast of better form with a six-match winning streak in the league, Liverpool have been no pushovers either – and had it not been for Mane's unfortunate handball against Sunderland, Liverpool would rightly have been considered favourites at just 3 points off the top.
As things stand, however, United find themselves slight favourites, with Liverpool's injury woes, fixture congestion concerns and their poor record at Old Trafford over the years.
Let's take a look at how the teams match up against each other, across the pitch.
United attack vs Liverpool defence
Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan seem to be finding their feet after slow starts to their Manchester United careers, and the one man army i.e. Zlatan Ibrahimovic seems to show no signs of slowing down due to age or fatigue. The presence of Ander Herrera and/or Michael Carrick in midfield has boded well for Pogba, and the return of Mkhitaryan has spread the responsibility for creative play more evenly across the squad.
Add to the mix the return to form of Anthony Martial, and you have quite a formidable attack in your hands. One can imagine that Liverpool's shaky backline would have their hands full.
Joel Matip seems to be easing his way back to training after a long time out injured; it is unlikely that he will feature against United. That leaves the familiar backline of Clyne, Lovren, Klavan and Milner the task of keeping United at bay. Though the fullback positions are relatively reassured, Liverpool often look vulnerable to attacks through the middle. Lovren and Klavan would need plenty of support from those ahead of them to do their job.
Liverpool attack vs United defence
However, it is not a stingy backline that has propelled Liverpool to their best-ever start to a Premier League season; it is an offensive gameplay that has yielded at least 4 more goals than any other team in the competition. Fans feared for Liverpool when Coutinho was stretchered off the pitch during the clash against Sunderland in November, but the goals have not dried up.
However, Sadio Mane is arguably more difficult to replace. It seems fairly certain that Firmino and Sturridge will feature, with question marks over Coutinho's availability still lingering. Origi has staked a claim for a more important role in the squad with impressive performances. However, it is unlikely that Klopp will deploy two strikers against United at Old Trafford.
With a hand considerably weakened by injuries and AFCON, Klopp will be instructing his midfield players to push forward and play a greater role as an attacking threat.
United can hardly boast of a settled and unchanged back four themselves; if Rojo does not fight his way back to fitness in time, Smalling and Jones will have to roll back the years to reinstate the chemistry they enjoyed on the pitch. Valencia will be a nuisance to Milner all evening, but Milner has stood up to the Premier League's best wingers so far this season without a flinch. Clyne's marauding runs might expose Darmian, and he will need support from Martial ahead of him.
The midfield battle
As with most clashes between equals, it is the midfield battle that will ultimately determine who will edge the contest. Klopp is likely to field Henderson unless he's forced not to, and it is just as well considering the license Pogba will have to roam around if unchecked. Klopp's midfield runners will have to be kept in check by Herrera and Carrick, the energy of the likes of Lallana and Wijnaldum being the key weapon in Liverpool's armoury.
It also remains to be seen the tactical instructions with which the managers send out their teams. Expecting Liverpool to start with high intensity, Mourinho will probably rely on Pogba to beat the press and play through the exposed midfield in the aftermath of the press. Having watched enough of Pogba, however, Klopp might caution his players against recklessly going after Pogba. This in all likelihood will lead to a cagey first half in which both teams take their time to figure out their opponents' approach, before emerging from the tunnel reinvigorated and in pursuit of 3 points.
The form books, tactics and predictions go out the window in such clashes; for all the tactical preparations Klopp and Mourinho can undertake, all it would take is a moment of madness in the heated atmosphere to get a player sent off and turn the contest completely on its head. Discipline, therefore, is what both managers will advocate above all else; although, a neutral would hope they don't advocate as much discipline as they did for the dreary clash in October.
However, the difference this time out is that neither team will view a draw as a point gained – a point would do their ambitions no favours, with each of the top 6 breathing on the others' neck. Mourinho would also be in a much more difficult position to justify himself if they are as unadventurous at home. It all builds up to a fascinating clash.Wherever you are on 15th January, make sure you don't miss out on this one – chances are you won't be disappointed with what's in store.