Manchester United vs Liverpool | Sunday 14 December | Old Trafford | 15:30
Every football league in the world has its one mammoth clash. In Spain, there’s the El Clasico, in Italy you have the Milan Derby, in South Africa we have the Soweto Derby and in the most popular league of them all, regardless of their current stature, is undoubtedly the encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool, two of English football’s most successful clubs. Super Sunday will see these two juggernauts battle it out for bragging rights at the Theatre of Dreams in what should be a fascinating affair. In previous decades there was usually a title at stake but even though these two teams are no longer the forces they once were, the rivalry between them remains undiminished.
To Win (90mins)
Manchester United 17/20
Louis van Gaal is starting to look the perfect fit at Old Trafford with his influence spreading throughout the club. Manchester United’s 2-1 victory away to Southampton on Monday night was their fifth consecutive victory in the league, something United fans could only dream about last season under the distrusted David Moyes. Although the United of old could easily have won ten matches in a row, the team Van Gaal is constructing is looking like a refurbished product. The Red Devils’ impressive form of late has seen them leap to third place on the table, just five points behind second place Manchester City and eight points off log leaders Chelsea. Last season, United battled against Liverpool losing both league encounters but with their opponents yet to find their best form this season, the Red Devils will be out for revenge. In United’s defence, Luis Suarez was unplayable and with him gone, Van Gaal’s galaxy of stars will relish the chance to build on their impressive head-to-head record that has seen them win four of the last six meetings.
Chris Smalling is a worry for Van Gaal after limping off with a leg injury against Southampton with reports suggesting he could be facing a lengthy spell on the touchlines. However, Jonny Evans is fit enough to replace the England international. Angel Di Maria is expected to make a return in the derby after overcoming a slight hamstring tear but the good news ends there for United fans as Van Gaal confirmed that he is still concerned with the fitness levels of Radamel Falcao. The striker has struggled to adapt to the pace of the Premier League and is still recovering from a serious knee injury that kept him out of the World Cup. Robin van Persie has had his critics this season, but it looks like he is back in form. The Dutchman demonstrated his skills on the football pitch by bagging a brace against the Saints and will be hoping to add to his tally against the Reds.
Liverpool failed to build on their midweek triumph at Leicester City with a lustreless home draw with Sunderland last Saturday. Despite dominating large spells of the game, the Reds lacked verve and energy up front and showed there’s still lots of work to be done if they are going to get their season back on track. It was a game that also raised questions regarding Brendan Rodgers’ team selection. Crucially, Steven Gerrard was dropped for Joe Allen – a move that left the side vulnerable in the space in front of the defence. Of course, the skipper made an instant difference when he came on, adding creativity and drive, but he’s too good to be a bench player, especially given the fact that there’s no-one better in his position at the club. Although Gerrard may have taken some criticism of late as his superpowers diminish with age, but when it comes to truly pivotal matches, like Manchester United on Sunday, he still stands head and shoulders above his teammates.
The Reds showed signs of improvement in their 1-0 victory over Stoke followed by their 3-1 victory at Leicester City and I suppose there were even some positives to take from the result against Sunderland if Chelsea couldn’t even beat them, but against their fiercest rivals, Liverpool will have to step up a gear. Form usually gets swept under the carpet whenever these two sides clash but with Liverpool going through an injury crisis and considering the match will be played at Old Trafford, it will be a weighty test for Rodgers. Last season, Liverpool did the double over United in the league but the Red Devils beat them 1-0 in the League Cup. With Daniel Sturridge side-lined and Mario Balotelli still a doubt, Rickie Lambert will be Rodgers’ focal point in attack. Lambert possesses the physical stature of a centre-half, yet has the composure to get goals, which gives Liverpool a massive advantage in breaking down teams set up like United.
VERDICT: Manchester United 17/20
Manchester United are favourites at 17/20 while Liverpool are priced up at 33/10. Last season United went into the big games as dark horses and low on confidence, this time around they have a different mood. Points won against both Chelsea and Arsenal show how this has influenced the team. Liverpool have struggled on the road having suffered four defeats from seven matches and United are tipped for victory.