Manchester United came from behind for the second week in a row, beating Crystal Palace with a dramatic stoppage-time howitzer via Nemanja Matic’s left boot, after having gone 2-0 down. United beat Chelsea the previous weekend at Old Trafford, coming from a goal down to win 2-1, and welcome eternal rivals Liverpool on Saturday.
Those wins have served to bolster confidence in the Red Devils’ camp, ahead of what is a crucial game in the race for the Champions League places, and indeed second place. United are ahead of Liverpool by two points at the moment, and a win would surely secure their place in next year’s Champions League, if not second place behind City.
While questions still remain about Jose Mourinho’s tactics and style of play, he will have been pleased by the fight shown by his team in the previous two games. That spirit will be needed this week, as United face Sevilla and Brighton in successive knockout cup games post the Liverpool game. Jose and Jurgen Klopp have not exactly seen eye-to-eye this season, and although this duel lacks the bite and enmity of Jose vs Conte, both managers will be keen to come out on top, with bragging rights as well as a league position at stake.
With all of that in mind, here is my team selection for the game, as I take over these duties from Rodney for now:
GK: David de Gea – The Spaniard has once again underlined why is he is regarded as the best in the world, with a superb stop from Christian Benteke in the second half at Palace ensuring United didn’t fall further in arrears. He will have to be at his absolute best to keep out Liverpool’s rampant front three, especially Mohamed Salah.
RB: Antonio Valencia – The Ecuadorian’s performance levels have dropped slightly over the last couple of weeks; nevertheless, he remains United’s best right-back, and one of the best in the league. He is sure to have a busy afternoon, coming up against Sadio Mane, and will need all his nous and experience to marshall United’s backline, while also occasionally providing an attacking threat.
CBs: Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling – The Ivorian looks to be fully fit now, but has not played a game in months, which makes it unlikely that he will be parachuted straight into a game like this. However, he remains United’s best defender, and in the absence of Phil Jones, one suspects Bailly’s superior defensive skill set will be needed against Liverpool. I would choose Smalling as his partner, again owing partly to Jones’ absence, while Victor Lindelof has not looked assured enough to be given a start in such an important game. Smalling will need to cut out his frequent lapses in concentration, or else United could end up on the wrong end of a hammering.
LB: Luke Shaw – While I know this is extremely unlikely to happen, with Jose almost certain to prefer Ashley Young, it is Shaw who should play here. Young was tormented by Andros Townsend last weekend, and one shudders to think what Mohamed Salah would do to him. Shaw has both the pace as well as the skillset to be able to cope with the Egyptian, while he would provide a far greater attacking threat down the left. Jose needs to be brave in his selection to beat Liverpool, starting at left-back.
DM: Nemanja Matic – The Serbian could not have chosen a better way to get off the mark for United, as he scored a superb long-range winner at Selhurst Park in stoppage time. His performances, which had been declining for a couple of months, seem to have picked up over the last couple of games. Fatigue has definitely played a part, as injuries have prevented him from getting any meaningful rest. However, Matic will be essential for this game, patrolling the space in front of United’s defence, and attempting to nip Liverpool’s attacking efforts in the bud.
CMs: Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba – The newly-declared Scotsman has made himself undroppable in Mourinho’s eyes, starting every game over the last month or so. McTominay does the simple stuff well, recycling possession, winning the ball back and providing a platform for United’s attacks. While there have been calls for him to be more ambitious with his passing, that burden can wait, with Paul Pogba ready and waiting to assume it. Pogba needs to stamp his authority over this game, as questions linger about his performance in big games.
RW: Jesse Lingard – While Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford would be greater attacking threats, Lingard’s work-rate off the ball will be vital in this game. He is also in good form, coming off the bench to score the winner against Chelsea, and has some experience of playing on the right previously; a position that Martial and Rashford are not naturals at. Lingard’s movement and finishing will hopefully also play a crucial role in United’s attacking endeavours.
LW: Alexis Sanchez – The Chilean has not exactly set the world alight since his arrival at Old Trafford; this game marks the perfect opportunity to do so. He will be up against one of Joe Gomez or Trent Alexander Arnold, and while both have performed admirably this season, Sanchez should be licking his lips at the prospect of going toe-to-toe with such inexperienced opponents, and should arguably come up on top.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – Lukaku has been in good goalscoring form since the turn of the year, while his movement and contribution to build-up play have steadily improved over the course of the season. Liverpool are defensively shaky, and the Belgian will look to exploit that to the fullest; expect him to score if United are to win this game.
Bench: Romero, Lindelof, Young, Carrick, Mata, Martial, Rashford
United come up against a Liverpool side in good form themselves, and will need to be at their absolute best to beat them. While Liverpool are superb offensively, their defence is porous, notwithstanding a recent run of clean sheets, and United must take advantage of this to seal second spot in the league for this campaign.