Both sides are free of major injury concerns. Jordon Ibe the only Liverpool player who might conceivably have played a part who is definitely out. Mario Balotelli and Lucas Leiva could return from illness and a groin strain respectively.
United are without the suspended Jonny Evans, and their forward options are limited by the absences of Robin van Persie and James Wilson, but Marcos Rojo could be back after a groin problem.
Both sides have been in excellent form, at least in terms of results. United, for all the doubts over the style of their play, have won 13 and lost just two of their last 19 league games, while their 3-0 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday was probably as good a performance as they’ve produced under Louis van Gaal.
Liverpool, who used the 3-4-2-1 formation for the first time when they lost at Old Trafford, are unbeaten in the league since, a run that’s seen them take 33 points from 14 games. Although United won that game on 6 December 3-0, the scoreline makes the victory look far more comfortable than it was. Liverpool had 19 shots to United’s 11 and but for some excellent goalkeeping from David De Gea – and some questionable goalkeeping from Brad Jones – it might have been a different story.
THE CARRICK FACTOR
It’s no coincidence that United’s suddenly improved performance on Sunday came after the return of Michael Carrick. United have simply looked a better side with him in the team this season: in games when he’s played more than an hour, United have picked up 2.31 points per game, as opposed to 1.63 when he hasn’t been involved. The reason for that is probably that Van Gaal, throughout his career, has liked to operate with a deep-lying playmaker, whether a centre-back or a holding midfielder.
Carrick is the only player in the squad with the passing ability and reading of the game to play like that. His pass completion rate is 89.2%, as opposed to 88.5% for Chris Smalling, 85.8% for Phil Jones, 85.1% for Jonny Evans and 84.4% for Paddy McNair.
It’s a point that is raised again and again, but it doesn’t become any less true. The 3-4-2-1 that Liverpool play creates problems for opponents that they are not used to answering.
Brendan Rodgers faces a major decision of whether he continues to deploy Daniel Sturridge as his centre-forward, as he did in the wins over Burnley and Swansea City, or whether he accepts that he is not quite back to his best yet after his injury and prefers to use Raheem Sterling as a false nine. Either way, the mobility of Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana will place great strain on the back of United’s midfield – Carrick will have far more defending to do than he did against Spurs – and may also prevent the full-backs getting forward for fear of Lallana or Coutinho exploiting any space behind them.
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FELLAINI AND THE AERIAL THREAT
Marouane Fellaini has become, to general surprise, Van Gaal’s joker this season, and against Spurs became at times almost a second striker, causing Eric Dier untold problems in the first half until Nabil Bentaleb was used to pick him up after half-time.
There are two ways Liverpool could deal with Fellaini: they could either put one of their central midfielders against him, which risks severing the link between defence and attack, or they could depute one of the centre-backs to pick him up as soon as he breaks beyond the midfield line. That they play with a back three means Liverpool are probably rather better able to deal with his threat than most sides.
This is an extremely difficult game to call given how both sides have been getting results recently.
Liverpool may have been the more convincing in their performances but there were perhaps signs away at Swansea that the rhythm that has sustained them since Christmas has begun to desert them. Given they’ve been involved in both domestic cup competitions and the Europa League, a little fatigue perhaps wouldn’t be a surprise.
United will not be as accommodating as City were and if they really have found a shape that suits their midfield, as seemed the case on Sunday, then they’re probably a touch long at 3.65. As ever, though, the recommendation is for caution, and backing United +0.25 on the Asian lines at 2.05 looks sensible.
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