Liverpool vs Manchester United: Key battles

by Leo Nieboer

For the first time in decades, Liverpool host Manchester United with neither team aiming for the title.

Despite that, this clash is underpinned by an intense, almost nauseating amount of importance. In a season that has seen both sides experience good and bad patches of form, Man United have a two point advantage over their fierce rivals in fourth position with just nine games remaining.

An away win for Man United would act as a massive confidence booster going into a punishing run of fixtures and allow for some vital breathing space to be discovered.

A loss would result in the quest for fourth spot being an uphill struggle, it wouldn’t be fatal, but it would mean that Champions League qualification goes out of Man United’s hands.

Would it be right to say that this upcoming clash determines who ultimately finishes in a better position come the end of the season? I think so.

The psychological boost of winning a game of such magnitude, this close to the end of the season, is likely to send the triumphant team into the ascendency and the other into painful submission.

Liverpool have only lost twice at home in the League this season as Aston Villa and Chelsea both coming away with narrow wins.

If Louis van Gaal is to come away from Merseyside with all three points, a clever balance of composure, aggression, strength and speed needs to be found in order to stifle a Liverpool side that has won ten of their last 13 League matches since the 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford in December.

Aside from the inevitable selection doubts that arise under van Gaal, this colossal match-up looks likely to be won on the basis of who dominates in certain areas of the pitch. So where will the key battles take place on Sunday?


Marouane Fellani vs Jordan Henderson

The key battle of such a highly charged occasion will undoubtedly take place in the middle of the park- and, as we have discovered in previous meetings between the two, they can end up getting a bit fiery (to say the very least).

Fellaini enjoyed his best game in a Man United shirt during the 3-0 win over Spurs on Sunday. For the likes of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb, two relatively inexperienced midfielders at this level, the big Belgian was simply too much to handle. Fellaini was an outright nuisance for the Tottenham midfield and by the end of the game the visiting side was utterly sick of him.

In an environment that is likely to surpass what we know as physically imposing, the involvement of Fellaini at Anfield is paramount. The midfielder’s ability to pacify opponents with his commanding stature and outright ferocity will come in handy when it comes to putting up with Liverpool’s new talismanic figure, Jordan Henderson.

After a few years of being pretty useless, the ex-Sunderland midfielder is beginning to establish himself as an ominous figure in the Premier League. With the depletion of Gerrard’s ability to play every game, Henderson is now the central aspect to this Liverpool team. His sheer energy and brute force allows the Englishman to lead by example and encourage others to play at a fast tempo.

Marouane Fellaini 8

Fellaini’s job on Sunday is to bully Henderson. He doesn’t need to match the amount of ground he covers, he just needs to assert himself on the Liverpool man when he gets the chance. By making strong challenges here and there, pushing him off the ball, beating him to headers, maybe even throwing in an elbow or two, he can halt the drive that Henderson usually passes onto the Liverpool side.

Moreover, he needs to give Henderson something to worry about. By blitzing forward in a similar fashion to the Spurs game, the Belgian will act as constant force that the Liverpool captain needs to consider.

If Henderson is allowed to play his natural game with no stifling force on the opposite side, Liverpool might end up playing at a tempo that Man United struggle to cope with. It seems that stopping Henderson playing is partially synonymous with stopping Liverpool playing. Imagine saying that back in 2011?


Phil Jones vs Daniel Sturridge

The main kryptonite behind Liverpool’s failure to reach the level they were at last season is essentially their lack of goalscoring threat. However, a fully fit Daniel Sturridge still spells problems for Man United, or more specifically, Phil Jones.

Given that Sturridge was a tormenting figure for Jones last season, focus on this particular battle will be even stronger than usual when the two meet on Sunday.

Jones put in a fantastic performance against Tottenham; the usually wobbly defender was wonderfully assured after a shaky first five minutes and he made the league’s most prolific goalscorer Harry Kane look powerless for 90 minutes.

The way Jones deals with the England international will determine how much of a foothold Liverpool have in the game. If Sturridge is handled in similar fashion to Kane, it’d be advantage to United.

If the reverse happens, with Jones failing to deal with Sturridge from the outset, United’s task on Sunday becomes infinitely more difficult.


Ashley Young vs Emre Can

The focal point of United’s victory on the weekend was their left hand side being a supreme force throughout the match. At the centre of that was Ashley Young.

Against a team that plays with three across the back, Young could end up being the key asset for Man United once again as they look to expose the width that will inevitably arise with Brendan Rodger’s 3-4-3 system and the personnel that is likely to patrol Liverpool’s flanks.

Liverpool’s Monday night success at the Liberty Stadium saw new signing Emre Can featuring as the right-sided centre-half in Liverpool’s back three. Still relatively new to English football and a central midfielder my trade, the German might be vulnerable if Young reproduces his blistering form at Anfield this weekend.

Ashley Young

With Raheem Sterling being the most likely candidate to play ahead of Can on the right hand side, the new signing is likely to be put under real pressure given that Sterling isn’t renowned for his ability to track back and dig in alongside the centre half.

If Sterling is used in that slot ahead of Can, United can have a lot of joy if the ball manages to quickly find its way out to the left channel, with Daley Blind likely to be accompanying Young in the onslaught down the wing.

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