United’s injury woes don’t get much better. Matteo Darmian is back, having got through Sunday’s defeat at West Bromwich Albion unscathed (although without playing as well as Guillermo Varela has been) and there’s a possibility Cameron Borthwick-Jackson could be available following the knock he suffered against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup. That eases some of the pressure on the full-back positions, although Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are still missing, while elsewhere it’s a familiar story. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones are all out and Jesse Lingard is suspended.
Liverpool, after the spate of hamstring injuries that blighted their January, are looking in rather better health, Lucas joining Joe Gomez and Danny Ings in missing out.
For both teams this has been a season of playing in fits and starts. Since the defeat to West Ham in the FA Cup a month ago Liverpool are unbeaten in seven (if you count the penalty shoot-out defeat to Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final as a draw). They’ve won three in a row in the league, including a highly impressive 3-0 win over City. Sunday’s 10-man comeback against Crystal Palace was a scramble, but spoke volumes about the spirit and self-belief in the side.
United, yet again, have stumbled just as they looked to be making progress, Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at West Brom, partly caused by the first-half red card to Juan Mata, bringing to an end a run of four straight wins (two of them, admittedly, against Shrewsbury and Midtjylland). Their away form is poor: they’ve won just one of their last eight away in the league and, although they have won away at Derby and Shrewsbury n the FA Cup, they also lost to Midtjylland in Denmark.
Louis van Gaal has won all four meetings with Liverpool since arriving at Manchester United, although the most recent of those, the only one against Jurgen Klopp, was slightly fortuitous, gained through Rooney’s late volley after Liverpool had had the better of the game to the extent of managing 19 shots to United’s seven.
What the latter stages of that game, and Rooney’s goal, demonstrated was how vulnerable Liverpool can be to high balls lofted at the heart of their defence. Marouane Fellaini made a huge difference when he got forward, although it should be acknowledged that neither Dejan Lovren nor Martin Skrtel played that day.
After seemingly settling on a 4-3-2-1 formation, Klopp in the last two league games has played a 4-2-3-1, with James Milner shuttling on the right to provide an extra defensive body when necessary. That got the best out of Adam Lallana against City, but the question is how Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, neither of whom have played since the Capital One Cup final, fit into that.
Roberto Firmino, having scored in his last two games (and seven in his last 12) seems the likely starter at centre-forward, which probably means Sturridge and Divock Origi missing out with Coutinho in the central creative role.
At West Brom, Michael Carrick anchored, with Ander Herrera just in front of him and Juan Mata behind Marcus Rashford, which looked like it may lack bite until Mata showed a previous hidden recklessness. The assumption must be that Morgan Schneiderlin will return after a one-game rest alongside Herrera, which should offer more energy than United had (with 11 men) at The Hawthorns.
There may also be a case for starting Memphis Depay, who excelled against both Midtjylland and Arsenal, on the left, which might mean Anthony Martial moving into the centre to replace Rashford. Or Depay could be used on the right.
Alberto Moreno is more of a wing-back than a full-back, forever looking to surge forwards, which always makes his flank seem like a key battleground.
How should whoever replaces Jesse Lingard react? On the one hand, especially if Liverpool boss possession, he should track back to prevent Darmian (or Varela) being overloaded. But on the other, his presence behind Moreno could be a valuable attacking outlet and may distract the full-back from his attacking sorties.
Trying to find patterns in United’s form is thankless and for a long time that was the case at Liverpool. Slowly, though, Jurgen Klopp seems to be getting his message across and they’ve conceded only two goals in their last six games (one of which went to extra-time). Given the turnover of central defenders in the run, that suggests the improvement is structural, which is a highly positive sign.
Liverpool at 2.05 look decent value against an inconsistent side still ravaged by injuries. That said, there may be a case for a small side bet on Fellaini to score the final goal of the game at 15.00.