For a team locked in a battle for a first top-flight title for 29 years every league game has huge significance.
But for Liverpool, Sunday’s trip to Old Trafford to play Manchester United is a match which has ascended to even greater levels of importance: it’s a derby against a buoyant and bitter rival and a game in hand on the closest title contender which can send Jurgen Klopp’s side back to the top of the Premier League. Pretty big then.
Manchester City are the current leaders, but their involvement in the Carabao Cup final against Chelsea, also on Sunday, allows the Reds the opportunity to jump back into the position that they have held for 14 of their 26 matchdays of this campaign.
Klopp’s side had monopolised the No1 spot for 94 days between a 4-0 thrashing of Bournemouth on 8 December and 6 February, when City’s 2-0 win away at Merseyside rivals Everton broke the spell of dominance.
Having been held to a disappointing 0-0 draw by Bayern Munich at Anfield on Tuesday, attention now turns back to the league. With good will in the bank by virtue of having reached the final of the Champions League last year, Klopp’s primary objective is clear, even if he is understandably reluctant to spell it out and dismiss other trophies.
“If we had to decide [between trophies], for all Liverpool fans it would be the Premier League – that’s clear, we know that,” he said before facing Bayern. “But now we play Champions League and we expect to do our best. Thank god we don’t have to make that decision today.”
Considering they lost all three of their Champions League away games during the group stage and face a daunting trip to Munich, where Bayern have lost just once all campaign, the European part of their task is looking harder than it did when the draw for the last 16 was made.
All the more onus on getting three points at Old Trafford then. “We have a massive game now, it’s true,” Klopp said on Tuesday. “Now we have to recover and prepare for Manchester United who are obviously in good shape, as we all saw on Monday.”
One thing Liverpool could take from their opponents is the ability to bounce back in domestic competition following a disappointing result in the Champions League.
United responded to a 2-0 defeat by Paris Saint-Germain – the first setback of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era – in the perfect way, dispatching Chelsea by the same scoreline to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals on Monday evening.
The winter period is often defined by tired legs, injuries and squad depth, but that shouldn’t be the case for Liverpool. Having been knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round by Wolves in early January, the Reds were able to take a winter break, with no game for 10 days between a 3-0 win over Bournemouth and the Bayern tie.
Klopp therefore whisked his players off to Marbella for some warm-weather training ahead of a crucial period in their season; neither City nor United have been afforded such a luxury. Fitness was not the problem on Tuesday – Liverpool simply came up against a solid game-plan for which they had no answer.
Sadio Mane had scored in each of his previous four games leading up to the first leg with Bayern but was surprisingly wayward in front of goal against the German champions. The winger snatched at three chances in the first half and, considering he and the team didn’t get another one until the 85th minute, his profligacy was telling.
Mohamed Salah was similarly out of sorts, meaning the Reds come into the United game on the back of their fourth blank of the season. So far in 2019 they haven’t been themselves in front of goal, managing an average of 1.5 goals per game in eight fixtures – a far cry from City’s whopping 3.83, or even Tottenham’s 2.09.
Considering United have won 11 of their 13 games under Solskjaer, Liverpool are bound to find them a tougher nut to crack than in their last meeting, when Xherdan Shaqiri came off the bench to score twice and seal a 3-1 win that put the final nail in Jose Mourinho’s coffin.
PSG have been the only side to find the net against United in February, despite Solskjaer’s rotation of his centre-back pairings. The Norwegian caretaker manager has not only instilled confidence and unshackled the attack, he’s improved every facet of his team just in time for the visit of their biggest rivals.
After a lacklustre offensive display against Bayern, Klopp dismissed the notion that 10 days off had left his side off the pace.
“Now we will not have any break anymore so now we play through,” he said. “If it was a problem tonight then we will not have that problem anymore because now we play every three days.”
The United game marks the start of an intense, season-defining period for Liverpool.
Win and they will go top of the Premier League before matches against Watford, Everton, Burnley and Fulham come thick and fast. Lose and accusations of a stutter, following the draws against Leicester and West Ham which allowed City to steal a march, will only grow louder.