Liverpool will be without Philippe Coutinho, suspended following his slightly unfortunate red card in the 3-0 defeat to West Ham United before the international break, while Jordan Henderson is a major doubt with the foot injury that forced him off during the 1-0 win over Bournemouth on the second weekend of the season.
Michael Carrick is a doubt for United with the calf injury that kept him out of international action, while Phil Jones hasn’t yet recovered from the thrombosis that has kept him out all season The big question for them, though, is whether David De Gea makes his first start of the season in goal after his proposed move to Real Madrid broke down, and the extent to which Anthony Martial is involved, following his (minimum) £36million signing from Monaco.
Both sides have made mixed starts to the season. United picked up seven points from their opening three games and dismissed Club Brugge in the Champions League without conceding, other than Carrick’s own-goal, but the defeat at Swansea last time out underlined how lacking in fluency they’ve been going forwards and has raised questions about Wayne Rooney’s suitability as a lone striker – questions that have only been magnified by a transfer policy that has left only Martial (and, perhaps, Marouane Fellaini) as back-up.
Liverpool, similarly, had taken seven points form their first three games, keeping three clean sheets and scoring only twice, but any sense that this might be a season of defensive resilience disappeared in a 3-0 home defeat to West Ham.
The two meetings last season marked the beginning and the end of Liverpool’s back-three experiment. At Old Trafford, Liverpool played far better than a 3-0 defeat suggested, thwarted largely by the excellence of De Gea, but at Anfield they struggled to gain control of the ball in the first half, leading indirectly to the frustration of Steven Gerrard, a half-time substitute, and his red card for a stamp on Ander Herrera seconds after coming on.
Although they lost 2-1, Liverpool actually came back into it after the red card, but it’s fair to assume United will again look to unsettle them by pressing high in the early stages.
THE SHAW CONUNDRUM
United’s defence has been a strength this season, but it was noticeable that both Swansea goals game from attacks down the United left after Luke Shaw had broken forward. Shaw is pretty much the only player in the United side to have any kind of licence (whether by design or because he isn’t as inhibited as others in the squad), and it was he who set up Juan Mata’s goal in that game. It’s not to blame him to point out Swansea capitalised on the space behind him; rather it’s to point out that United didn’t cover those forward surges efficiently.
That means that while Shaw may be able to pressure his former Southampton team-mate Nathaniel Clyne, there could be opportunities for whoever plays on the Liverpool right – Roberto Firmino probably – to take advantage.
BENTEKE v BLIND
Before the start of the season, it seemed Daley Blind represented an obvious weakness in the United backline. He isn’t big and he isn’t quick and the fear was that he simply wasn’t good enough defensively. So far, his positional sense and his qualities as a playmaker from the back mean that he has thrived alongside Chris Smalling, but Christian Benteke will present a major test. He’s quick, powerful and good in the air and if he can isolate Blind, there’s only going to be one winner.
Normally you’d look at Manchester United to win at home, see it at 1.95 and snap it up, almost whoever the opposition, but particularly against a team United beat twice last season and that lost its last game 3-0. But there is something not quite right about United at the moment, the sense of a storm brewing that was heightened by revelations this week of the players’ unhappiness at how Van Gaal had treated Rafael.
Perhaps everything will click and the clouds will blow over but the sense is that it wouldn’t take much to tip United into full-blown crisis. But can you trust Liverpool to take advantage? Probably not, and certainly not +0.5 at 1.88. It feels as though both sides are still reaching for a way to play and, while that may make over 2.5 goals at 2.15 enticing, it’s probably still best to stick with initial sense that United should edge it.
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