Manchester United’s injury crisis may be beginning to ease, but its bad enough still. When Chris Smalling limped out of Monday’s win at Southampton, it was the 43rd injury since Louis van Gaal took over in the summer. Smalling is out with a groin injury, while Daley Blind and Luke Shaw are also missing and Phil Jones, who returned to training this week, Angel Di Maria and Rafael are major doubts.
Kolo Toure’s groin injury means he is missing for Liverpool, while Daniel Sturridge won’t be back for another month. Mario Balotelli may have recovered from his groin problem, but even if he has, there’s no guarantee he’d make the side.
The fixture at Anfield last season was one of those David Moyes complained about when he tried to claim the fixture list was conspiring against him. It was the third match for both sides and was a tight affair, won 1-0 by Liverpool thanks when Daniel Sturridge touched in Daniel Agger’s header.
Both sides played 4-2-3-1 that day, but by the time they met at Old Trafford in March, Liverpool’s diamond was well-established. Liverpool swept to a 3-0 win, Steven Gerrard scoring two penalties and missing a third while Nemanja Vidic was sent off. Liverpool showed then how susceptible the centre of United’s defence was to pace, but given the changes of personnel at both clubs in those areas, that’s of limited relevance this time round.
Manchester United may have won their last five Premier League games in a row, but there’s no pretending they’re playing well. Gary Neville’s comment in Monday that United and Liverpool are so out of form that Sunday’s meeting will be like a game between two pub teams may not have met much favour from Van Gaal, but his point was clear.
United’s passing was awful at times against Southampton, while Paddy McNair was so error-prone he had to be sacrificed before half-time. At St Mary’s United were essentially saved by the finishing of Robin van Persie, who now seems to have returned to form. If anything, Liverpool have been even worse.
The wins over Stoke and Leicester at least breathed some new life into the season but against Sunderland last Saturday and then against Basel in the Champions League on Tuesday, they looked slow at the front of the pitch and lacking in the sort of brio and creativity that was second nature last season.
LIVERPOOL’S FORWARD LINE
Liverpool’s problems at the back are well-known and have been for a couple of seasons, but they have major issues at the front of the team as well. Steven Gerrard’s defensive shortcomings have been increasingly obvious– tackles per game down to 1.9 from 2.9 last season – and so it makes some sense to field him behind a front man, as Rafa Benitez did when he paired him with Fernando Torres.
Certainly on Tuesday, Gerrard seemed the only player capable of lifting his side. But if he plays behind Rickie Lambert, the line is led by a 32-year-old and a 34-year-old, one who was never quick and one whose pace has begun to leave him. That restricts Liverpool’s options severely and raises, again, the question of why Rodgers has so little faith in Fabio Borini.
Van Gaal seems determined to play with a back three if he has sufficient defenders available, but Sunday will be a test of that. To have three central defenders (even if one of them dos end up being a converted midfielder in Michael Carrick) guarding against Lambert seems like overkill, particularly if Raheem Sterling operates wide.
His pace, then, could exploit spaces that may appear behind either wing-back. Then again, with so many full-backs injured, perhaps he has little choice. Sterling has thrived in central areas over the past year, but this may be a time for him to play wide and try to exploit the fact that United will probably be using converted midfielders rather than full-backs in those areas.
Given Liverpool’s recent form and United’s new-found capacity for scrambling results even when they’re not playing well, the 1.77 available on United to win seems relatively good value (even if it has come in significantly over the week).
It’s probably, though, worth trying to find better value, either in home/home half-time full-time at 2.70 or backing United -1.25 on the Asian at 2.75.