By Matthew Galea
If Manchester United were taught something of a footballing lesson by Manchester City in the first derby of the season, then Tuesday morning’s clash with Liverpool will be the first real chance for Jose Mourinho to prove what he has learned.
Mourinho has no shortage of big-game experience and even before he arrived at United he had managed to harbour a somewhat intense dislike for Liverpool and their former managers – particularly Rafa Benitez – which should mean the importance of this occasion to his new club should not be lost on him.
But while the game will undoubtedly be heated, there is no doubt Mourinho is coming up against an increasingly impressive Liverpool unit finally finding their best form under Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp completely outwitted United’s former manager Louis van Gaal over two legs in the Europa League last season, even if the Dutchman maintained United’s good form over Liverpool in the Premier League.
Personally, I am not as down on United’s start to the season as many others seem to be. All in all, I think it has been a respectable start as Mourinho continues to formulate his best starting XI and only incredible wastefulness stopped United from beating Stoke City last time out. As a result, United are three points behind Liverpool and five points off league leaders City heading into the fixture and perhaps more desperate for a result – purely from a League perspective – than I would like heading into a game at Anfield.
Liverpool have proven their appetite for the big occasion this season and come out of tough games with good results.
Their opening day draw away to Tottenham looks a fantastic result given how the London-based outfit have started the season, while a 4-1 thrashing of champions Leicester at home (matched by United at Old Trafford) and a 2-1 win away to Chelsea means however much United fans want to patronise Liverpool, they deserve to be considered a credible threat to United’s top-four finish ambitions.
If United fail to take at least a point from Anfield, it would be a big – albeit early – blow to Mourinho’s admittedly lofty Premier League title ambitions for his first season at Old Trafford.
Thankfully, United have come through the international break unscathed. None of United’s England internationals started in their latest failure – a bore draw away to Slovakia – while the Spanish contingent of Juan Mata, David de Gea and Ander Herrera should all be fresh.
Paul Pogba played himself back into form with France, scoring a 30-yard thunderbolt against Netherands, whereas in the same game Liverpool’s Georgino Wijnaldum was injured.
Mourinho has seldom had much trouble taking points from Anfield, so it will be interesting to see how he approaches this fixture against Klopp’s men and their notorious high-pressure game.
A midfield trio of Mata ahead of Pogba and Herrera has worked a treat in United’s last two Premier League outings, helping United to create plenty of chances and maintain possession, but Mourinho might just favour the bigger-bodied Marouane Fellaini or the calming influence of Michael Carrick for the big occasion.
Defence also remains a concern given how easily United crumbled under limited pressure against Stoke. No matter who you play in the Premier League or how much dominance you might enjoy, there is always going to be a point in the game where defence must stand tall and as good as Daley Blind and Eric Bailly have been this season, United have not strung together a strong 90 minutes in that regard.
Worryingly, I suspect they will face more than just a 10-minute spell of pressure at Anfield.
That means United have to be lethal when they get their chances. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not had much luck in front of goal in recent Premier League encounters, though he scored in his last Europa League appearance, but surely if he keeps getting into such good positions the goals cannot be far away.
The big man will be right up for an away day at Anfield, too, and it would be hugely satisfying to see the big Swede put Liverpool to the sword. Anthony Martial’s return to the goals against Stoke City was also pleasing and coupled with Marcus Rashford’s ever-present goalscoring threat there is no doubting United have the tools to score goals when the opportunities come.
Let us just hope Mourinho can put out a team capable of creating enough of them to grab a much-needed win.