Jurgen Klopp‘s Premier League-leading Liverpool take on Jose Mourinho‘s Manchester United this weekend in a renewal of one of England’s fiercest rivalries, in a game that players on both sides will be desperate to win.
Though United are definitely in the worse form, languishing 16 points behind their rivals, form has a history of disappearing in derby contests like this, especially with the talented players available on both sides.
Here’s a look at the key player battles for Sunday’s game.
Mohamed Salah vs Marcus Rashford
There were murmurs that Salah was not the same player as the all-conquering force of last season. The Egyptian has put all such talk to bed, scoring a hat-trick last week against Bournemouth and then following that up with the goal that ensured Liverpool qualified for the Champions League Round of 16.
He hasn’t marked one of Liverpool’s fiercest derby games with a goal yet, however, with United having contained Salah well in both encounters last season. But the defensive form that held Salah to zero goals has disappeared, and the Liverpool talisman will be relishing the chance to rack up the goals on Sunday.
Much like Salah, Marcus Rashford is finding his best form after a slow start to the season. He’s scored two goals and added four assists in December, with one goal and two assists in United’s last Premier League game.
He’s also seemingly discovering his voice, becoming one of the more vocal members of the squad and sounding a rallying cry ahead of this game, calling manager Mourinho a “winner” and emphasising that his team are not underdogs against Liverpool.
Rashford scored twice in United’s last encounter with Liverpool, and in current form, he has every chance of backing up those fighting words.
Jordan Henderson vs Ander Herrera
Jordan Henderson has spent most of this season with questions hanging over his place in Liverpool’s first-choice XI. With the arrivals of Fabinho, Naby Keita, and Xherdan Shaqiri and the continued good form of James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, Henderson has often been the one to suffer when Klopp has looked to chop and change.
But every time he’s written off, Liverpool’s captain reminds his critics of his worth. The England midfielder was brilliant in the Reds’ win over Napoli in midweek, serving as a perfect midfield anchor. Now, it’s time to do the same against the Red Devils.
Ander Herrera is no stranger to being in and out of the side thanks to other midfielders being preferred options. But he’s fought himself back into Mourinho’s plans with some committed displays for United, not to mention crucial interventions – scoring the equalising goal after United were 2-0 down against Southampton, setting up an equaliser in United’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal.
And games like this one seem to bring out the best in the Spaniard, who thrives on the passion – not to mention, the confrontation. Though he had a shocker in United’s other derby, against Man City, expect Herrera to be raring to go on Sunday.
Virgil van Dijk vs Eric Bailly
That Liverpool are genuine title contenders can be put down largely to the form of one player, and it’s not Salah or the rest of the Reds’ attack. Van Dijk has been a colossus at the back, leading Liverpool to the best defensive record in the league – and, of course, the best record in the league overall.
Van Dijk was in the XI that lost 2-1 to United at Old Trafford that season, and with Liverpool likely fielding a makeshift back-line, he’ll have to be at his very best to make sure there’s no repeat.
Van Dijk’s form for Liverpool has been so good, it’s caused an identity crisis at United, who are now mulling a splash in the winter transfer market to mirror the Reds’ move for their star centre-back last January. Until then, it’s up to defenders already on United’s payroll to trigger an improvement in the team’s defensive form.
At the moment, the responsibility for that lies with Eric Bailly. The Ivorian has returned after being frozen out by Mourinho, and has looked in good form instantly. If he can continue that, United will have a much better chance of keeping out Liverpool’s much-vaunted back line.
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