United travel down the East Lancashire Road to Liverpool this Saturday to face our fiercest rivals at Anfield, a game which is never for the faint-hearted. This one won’t be any different. That it comes on the back of an International break only whets the appetite of the fans for a winning resumption to the domestic league campaign as the run-in to Christmas commences, but as ever, Liverpool away is one of the most difficult fixtures in our annual calendar.
We also travel in the knowledge that we will be without several of our most influential players of recent months, not least Paul Pogba (who remains sidelined with a hamstring injury, the severity of which is open to debate) and now also Marouane Fellaini, who had to leave Belgium’s game against Bosnia & Herzegovina on Sunday evening after only 25 minutes with a knee ligament injury which will keep him sidelined for almost a month. Michael Carrick is also doubtful.
Our hosts also had bad news on the injury front when leading striker Sadio Mane sustained a hamstring injury on duty with Senegal, which will keep him out of action for at least 6 weeks… fortunate timing from our point of view.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (4-2-3-1)
GK: David de Gea – now firmly established as number one choice for both club and country and deservedly nominated for the Ballon d’Or this week; he will, as ever, prove a formidable barrier for the Liverpool forwards to breach.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony will have travelled as far as any other player to feature for Ecuador during the break, but such is his outstanding athleticism that I have no concerns in naming him in the starting XI at Anfield. Will be as relieved as anyone that the dangerous Mane is missing this game, so he should have a chance to establish control of the right side of the pitch for United.
LB: Ashley Young – Young has played well at left-back recently, and not having any involvement with England means he has basically had the last week to rest up and prepare for this game. That will be good, as he is likely to come up against the very pacy Mo Salah; the Egyptian is like greased lightning, so Ashley will need to try to keep him “out of the game” as much as he can.
CBs: Eric Bailly & Phil Jones– in one of the most hostile arenas in England, you want your best, most reliable pairing at centre-back position, and these two are most definitely that partnership for now. Bailly has a turn of pace which will be invaluable when we invariably have to work hard to keep Liverpool’s pacy attackers at bay, and Jones can man-mark Sturridge or Firmino as needed, as well as providing a threat at set-pieces. Both will need to be at their best here, as they will be tested for sure.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Ander Herrera – both these lads are almost here by ‘default’, given the injuries we’ve had to Pogba, Fellaini and Carrick, though quite honestly I have no problem in selecting both for this fixture. Matic has bossed a midfield against better Liverpool midfielders than they currently possess when he played for Chelsea, and Herrera knows all about overcoming a hostile Anfield atmosphere, having run the gauntlet of abuse from the ‘lovable’ scousers after Steven Gerrard got red-carded after 48 seconds on the pitch for attempting to seriously hurt the little Basque player several years ago. Both will be very busy boys indeed, attempting to wrestle control of the game away from Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Gigi Wijnaldum.
RM: Juan Mata – Juan once again showed his worth with a lovely well-taken early goal against Crystal Palace in our last Premier League fixture, and it would be fantastic if he could repeat that feat at Anfield. He will probably come up against Alberto Moreno, who has mysteriously been picked over the reliable Andy Robertson at left-back for the home team, and I’d expect our Spaniard to be more influential than Liverpool’s version.
AM(C): Henrikh Mkhitaryan – the little Armenian has, somewhat predictably, had a World Cup qualifying experience to forget, surrounded as he is at International level by lesser players than he is used to siding with at United. He will probably be relieved to be lining up with his club colleagues once again, and I hope we see the bright, inventive, decisive Henrikh we’ve glimpsed many times before, as his invention will be crucial to our gaining the result we want from this game.
LM: Anthony Martial – I debated over whether Marcus Rashford might be a ‘safer’ bet for this position, but I think the home defence will be petrified by the young Frenchman’s pace and trickery on the ball, whether it be Trent Alexander-Arnold or Joe Gomez at right-back for them. Tony was surprisingly omitted from the France squad for the recent qualifiers by Didier Deschamps, a decision which makes his chances of starting at Anfield even more likely since Rashford played quite a bit for England. If Tony plays well we have a good chance of leaving Merseyside with a decent result.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – news that he might have picked up a slight knock whilst with Belgium had my heart doing palpitations, but apparently Romelu is fine to continue his incredible start to his Manchester United career, and with the reputation that he has acquired now, I don’t think the Liverpool centre-halves will be relishing playing against him! Hopefully the big Belgian can maintain his fine goalscoring form against our fiercest rivals!
BENCH: Romero, Rashford, Lingard, Blind, McTominay, Darmian, Smalling.
This will be as difficult a fixture as it always is, and much will depend on our lads winning their individual battles with their direct opponents all over the pitch. It is essential that we keep Liverpool quiet for the opening 20 minutes, thereby silencing their home crowd. The news of Sadio Mane’s injury was a huge boost, coming as it did after the news of Fellaini’s knee ligament trouble whilst playing for Belgium, but we still need to try to gain control of midfield, and that won’t be easy as I suspect Jurgen Klopp will opt to replace Mane with Emre Can and effectively play a three-man central midfield to attempt to ‘run’ the game from there. I would probably settle for a point from this game, but I’m hoping we can take all three and keep pace with our cross-town rivals at the top of the table. It will be tense and fraught with nerves as always. There’s no better game to win… and no worse game to lose!