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Doubts remain over United’s title credentials and the Reds should get their own bid back on track at Anfield.
Liverpool to Win (-106)
|Liverpool vs Manchester United Information|
|What||Liverpool vs Manchester United|
|Where||Anfield, Liverpool, England|
|When||Sunday, 17 January 2021, 11.30 AM EST|
|How to watch||Peacock Premium|
The momentum belongs to Manchester United. A hard-fought 1-0 victory over Burnley on Tuesday saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side move to the top of the Premier League table. They are three points clear of the defending champions and their upcoming opponents, Liverpool. United have won nine of their last 11 games, a superior record to any other team in the division.
The Reds, by contrast, have stuttered in recent weeks. Yet it is still worth backing them to come out on top at Anfield on Sunday. Jurgen Klopp’s side tends to thrive on pressure, and their home record this term is formidable. United has made terrific progress but Liverpool is still the better team – back them to prove it in this match.
For much of Solskjaer’s tenure, United have followed one step forward with two steps back. The only thing they were consistent at was being inconsistent. In that context, their results in the Champions League group stage were characteristic. Despite thrashing RB Leipzig 5-0 and beating Paris Saint-Germain away from home, United failed to finish in the top two of Group H and was sent crashing out before the knockout rounds. A 3-2 defeat by Leipzig in December led to calls for Solskjaer to be replaced.
Yet United’s response to that setback has been exemplary. They have now taken 29 points from the last 33 available, climbing from 15th place to top spot in the process. The Red Devils have sorted out their home form, which was dire in the opening weeks of the campaign, and become more solid on the road. Solskjaer is continuing to get the best out of Bruno Fernandes, while Paul Pogba has found his form in the last few weeks. United remain at their most threatening on the counter-attack, but their possession play has improved too.
No one at Old Trafford should be getting carried away just yet, though. In the aforementioned 11-game run, United failed to beat arguably the two best teams they played, Manchester City and Leicester City. Moreover, this entire Premier League season has hitherto been more volatile than most, with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur each topping the table before quickly sliding back down it. United’s position at the summit of the standings is cause for optimism, but staying there over the course of the next 21 games will be a much tougher task.
Liverpool looked to have the bit between their teeth and would – in private at least – have viewed their fixture list over the festive period as relatively kind. But nothing can be taken for granted in this most unpredictable of campaigns, and Liverpool head into Sunday’s showdown on a poor run of form in the top flight. Draws with West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United were missed opportunities, while a 1-0 defeat by Southampton last time out gave Manchester United the chance to climb above them in the standings.
Liverpool did return to winning ways in the third round of the FA Cup, but given that their opponents were essentially Aston Villa’s Under-18 team, we cannot read too much into that game. The concerning thing for Klopp is that Liverpool were far from their best in an attacking sense in their three previous league matches. They huffed and puffed against Newcastle but could not find a way through, and also lacked their usual fluidity in the draw with West Brom. Against Southampton, Liverpool performed dismally in the first half and, despite having more possession after the break, found it difficult to carve out clear-cut chances.
Nevertheless, there is reason to believe things might be different this weekend. Manchester United will play on the counter-attack on Sunday, but they will not be packing men behind the ball and rarely crossing the halfway line like West Brom and Newcastle did. Liverpool were also tasked with breaking down a deep defense against Southampton, who took the lead early on. Unless United also score early, Liverpool will have more space in which to operate and that will serve them well.
The surprising thing about Liverpool’s recent sluggishness in attack is that much of the focus has been on the other end of the team. With Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez long-term absentees, Joel Matip struggling to shake off various niggles, and Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams not yet fully trusted by Klopp, midfield duo Fabinho and Jordan Henderson started at center-back in the loss to Southampton. Neither was to blame for Danny Ings’ winning goal, and Liverpool did not defend particularly badly thereafter.
The Reds have certainly found clean sheets harder to come by this season, but they have not conceded more than one goal in a home game since the opening weekend. And with 22 points from a possible 24 at Anfield, Liverpool have the best record on their own patch in the Premier League. Only West Brom have denied them victory at home this term.
Indeed, the more pertinent question ahead of this match is whether United’s defense will be able to withstand the relentless waves of attack they are almost certain to face. Solskjaer’s side have conceded 11 goals in their eight away games this season, and their shut-out against Burnley was the first clean sheet they have managed on the road. Liverpool’s defensive personnel might be more unfamiliar, but United’s backline could come off worse on Sunday.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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