Manchester United are back in Premier League action on Saturday lunchtime for an eagerly awaited clash with Liverpool at Anfield. After a blistering start to the season, successive draws against Stoke and Basle followed by a stuttering win against newly promoted Norwich have caused alarm amid some abject defensive displays.
United will hope to welcome back several of their walking wounded for the key clash at the weekend. Vidic, Cleverley and Smalling are all battling to be fit with the big Serb making his comeback in midweek for his national side. Although he completed a comfortable 90 minutes, a missed penalty and elimination from the European Championships next year will hopefully double his determination to make a comeback with United.
United go into the match on the back of a poor recent record at Anfield. Three successive defeats coupled with some lacklustre performances mean that a vast improvement is required if the three points are going to come back to Manchester.
StatZone by Rahul Singh
Rooney has had an incredible 32 attempts at goal this season, one every 18 minutes, getting 59% on target.
United have lost each of the last 4 games when Fletcher have not started against Liverpool & have won the last three against them with Fletcher in the midfield.
Liverpool have won four of their last six Premier League games against United overall and the last three in a row at Anfield.
Last 5 PL encounters between the two sides have seen four penalties.
Liverpool have scored 45 goals against United in the PL, 2nd best to Chelsea who have netted 51 against us.
Out of 11 games officiated by Andre Marriner, United have won 10 & lost 1 (against Liverpool in 2009, away)
Liverpool have made a decent start to the season with four wins, two defeats and a draw from the opening seven games to leave them fifth in the Premier League. After a heavy outlay on new signings since Lord Dalglish's return in January, the pressure is on for them to finish in the top four. Anything else will be deemed as failure by their American owners.
Shorn of talisman Gerrard who was injured for six months with a serious groin complaint, much of the burden in the early part of the season has been placed on Luis Suarez. Signings such as Henderson, Downing, Adam have added depth to their squad but whether it is enough to regain a Champions League spot come the end of the season remains to be seen.
Liverpool have proved vulnerable in defence where lack of pace is a real issue. Carragher and Skrtel are solid but can be rash in the tackle. Their long standing left back problem looks to have been solved by the arrival of Enriqué from Newcastle who has impressed in tandem with Downing down the flank. The much under-rated Kuyt has regained his spot on the right of midfield in recent weeks after bewilderingly missing out to Henderson in the early weeks of the season. The Dutchman works tirelessly for the team cause and is always liable to pop up with a vital goal as United have found to their cost.
With Gerrard seemingly fit to return, it would appear that he will take his place behind Suarez with Carroll dropping to the bench. This would allow the Englishman to drop back to assist in midfield when required in an area that may go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. If Adam is picked alongside Lucas then it will be vital that he is pressed by his opponent as he has shown to be vulnerable in the past to such a tactic as given time and space, he can cause United problems with accurate passing.
The main danger, of course, will be Suarez who has settled well into life at Anfield since his arrival back in January. His skill, close control and quick feet have added a new dimension to a Liverpool side often bereft of creativity last season. He has also shown himself to be adept in winning fouls in dangerous areas and it will be vital that referee Marriner remains wary of this tendency in front of a partisan home crowd.
I am writing this ahead of the manager's press conference on Friday so any injuries picked up after the international break will not be taken into account. If fit, the back five just about picks itself. Chris Smalling is said to be back in training but with no match practice, it would be doubtful that he would be risked. Hopefully, the return of Vidic and Ferdinand will solidify a frequently porous United centre of defence recently. As mentioned earlier, the Serb completed 90 minutes on Tuesday and as long as he incurs no ill effect then he will surely regain the armband. Rio Ferdinand is an interesting case. Apparently he was fit for the Norwich game but was left on the bench so he may possibly have dropped down the pecking order following some recent sub-standard displays. If he has been able to train for the last couple of weeks then he will surely come into contention for a starting berth alongside his old comrade. Jones and Evra seem well equipped to deal with Liverpool's wide threat.
The big decision for the manager is whether to go with the standard 4-4-1-1 formation or tighten things up with a more defensive 4-3-3. My pick is the latter as the United central area has been so open at times and some solidity is now required even if it is to the detriment of our attacking threat at times. With Cleverley short of match practice after recovering from his injury, I have gone for a midfield trio of Carrick at the base supported by Anderson and Fletcher. The latter two will be expected to combine a pressing game with the ability to break forward and support Rooney up front. If Cleverley was fully match fit then on current form he would be picked but a place on the bench looks the best he can hope for.
The front three of Nani, Rooney and Young offer a potent threat with pace, movement and the ability to switch positions. It is vital that Rooney does not get isolated as frustration can set in and he can lose focus. Nani will look to keep Enriqué quiet from an attacking point of view and will be assisted by the marauding Jones. On the other flank the combination of Young and Evra has looked potent at times but Kelly and Kuyt for Liverpool may well mean that this threat is nullified to some extent.
Welbeck and Hernández may have to be content with a role from the bench which could mean an exclusion for Berbatov as additional midfield and defensive cover will be needed. With the little Mexican taking part in a bruising encounter with Brazil in his homeland early on Wednesday morning (UK time), it is feasible that he is left out to recuperate for the vital Champions League fixture next week. Also fighting for a spot on the bench could be the likes of Evans, Giggs, Park and Valencia.
I can foresee this being an incredibly tight match with neither wanting to give an inch. I would expect it to be low scoring so will go for a 1-1 draw with the United goal coming from Vidic. This prediction while pessimistic would stop the rot of three successive defeats at Anfield and I can see both managers being happy with this outcome.
United will then begin to look ahead to the biggest game of the season so far as City visit Old Trafford next Sunday with a Champions League trip to Romania sandwiched in between. October is always a vital month but this one will go a long way towards shaping the season.
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What are your thoughts ahead of the game? Where will the game be won and lost?