For the first time in many seasons, Manchester United find themselves in rather unfamiliar territory heading into what is undoubtedly the most important clash of our season so far.
Whilst it would be a huge lift if we were to beat Liverpool this Sunday, it would also be a fatal blow to our greatest rivals’ chances of winning the elusive Premier League trophy that their fans have never got their hands on.
To United fans, beating Liverpool would be more than just three points, it would be a salvo for our season – a shard of sunlight piercing through this dark and gloomy cloud.
On that note, here are the five key battles that are set to decide the fate of this fixture.
Phil Jones vs Daniel Sturridge
Phil Jones is likely to feature again after his impressive display against West Brom last weekend. He was commanding in the air, strong and committed in the tackle and he led the defence like a seasoned pro after he slowly got into the game from a shaky start.
If he can continue that form this weekend, he could be a nailed on starter from now until the end of the season – that’s one hell of an incentive for a player who has been nothing more than a utility man in his United career so far. Although Daniel Sturridge’s rise to fame has been something of an uncertain one, he has definitely found his feet at Liverpool. His turn of pace paired with seemingly limitless confidence means he is capable of almost anything. Can Jones keep his composure or will he blow his chance and be left in trailing in Sturridge’s wake?
Chris Smalling vs Luis Suarez
Chris Smalling is probably the most underrated player on United’s books and yet he is a consistently solid and dependable performer whenever he is thrust into the team (at centre-back).
What does he have to do to prove to the world that he has what it takes to be our new No. 5? Shutting out Luis Suarez would be a good start. Attempting to stop the lively Uruguayan is almost an exercise in futility – after all, he has a goals-to-games ratio of 1.04 in the Premier League this season. If Smalling can hold his nerve and is given the proper support from Michael Carrick, there is a chance he could come out of this fixture a hero. This is the area of the pitch in which the tie will be decided, one slip-up and it’ll be “come back Vida, all is forgiven”.
Marouane Fellaini vs Steven Gerrard
There seemed to be a new-found confidence from our big, hairy destroyer last weekend so it’s likely he will feature against Liverpool in order to nullify the threat of Steven Gerrard controlling the game from deep midfield. Not averse to swinging an elbow or crushing an opponent under the sheer weight of his fro’, can Marouane keep his cool in a typically fiery fixture and help lead us to a win? His first goal in a United shirt, anyone?
Wayne Rooney vs Daniel Agger
Liverpool’s goalscoring record this season has been well-documented but they have had problems at the other end of the pitch – they are leaking goals and they do not look settled when faced with top-class opposition. With Wayne Rooney chomping at the bit and raring to finish the season on a high, he could be a real handful for the Liverpool defence. If Rooney is at his best, Agger won’t get near him but if our Wazza is found huffing, puffing and miscuing passes, expect a shut-out from the visiting Dane.
Robin van Persie vs Simon Mignolet
After his proclamation of contentment this week, however forced it may have seemed, every United fan worth their salt must now be salivating at the prospect of a revitalised and re-focused Van Persie walking out of the tunnel at Old Trafford with a smile on his face, ready to dish up some left-footed justice.
Mignolet has enjoyed a good first season at Liverpool but in recent weeks his form has dipped somewhat and a visit to Old Trafford is a daunting prospect for even the most seasoned of pro’s. With Van Persie having scored six in his last seven starts against Liverpool, we can expect to see some spectacular saves and sublime finishing on display this Sunday. This is, of course, assuming our very own, home-grown Danny Welbeck hasn’t earned himself a start after showing another glimpse of his undeniable talent in a short cameo last week.
The derby of all derbies at a time we need a win the most – can Moyes’ Boys give us one great, lasting memory from this season?