Bitter rivals Manchester United and Liverpool will renew hostilities on Sunday when English football’s two most successful clubs face off at Old Trafford.
The hosts would effectively secure a top-four spot next season with victory over their greatest enemies, while Liverpool have a lot more work to do to clinch Champions League football themselves.
Always a red-letter day in the English football calendar, Sunday’s showdown between these two behemoths could be a particularly significant encounter one way or the other.
Liverpool have already been mathematically dethroned as champions, but the coronation of Manchester City could be officially confirmed this weekend, with Liverpool themselves completing the deal.
Victory for Man City away to Crystal Palace on Saturday would leave Manchester United needing to avoid defeat in this match to prevent their local rivals from being crowned champions with four games to spare.
City’s success is a formality at this stage, and these two sides will instead be focused on the impact this match could have on their respective top-four hopes.
Should Man United win then they would end the weekend at least 12 points clear of fifth place with only four games remaining – effectively an unassailable gap given their superior goal difference too – whereas defeat for Liverpool could see them end the weekend eighth in the table and as many as seven points adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea.
Removing the grand sense of occasion and focusing purely on the league table, this is undoubtedly a bigger match for Liverpool following back-to-back Premier League draws which saw them fail to seize the initiative in a captivating top-four race.
A 1-1 stalemate with Leeds United was shrouded by the Super League shambles which engulfed both of these clubs, and the Reds then followed that up with a profligate point against Newcastle United which saw them suffer a familiar fate as they missed a host of chances before being punished at the other end.
Optimists will point out that Liverpool have at least stopped losing; their current five-game unbeaten league run, which consists of three wins and two draws, is their best spell of form so far this calendar year.
However, with a four-point gap to Chelsea heading into this weekend, Jurgen Klopp will know that only wins will do and the main frustration will lie in the fact that his side created enough chances to have won the Newcastle game in particular long before Joe Willock’s late injury-time equaliser.
That result made it 15 points dropped from winning positions for Liverpool this season, a far cry from the ‘mentality monsters’ who always seemed to get over the line last term and a particularly worrying statistic coming into a game against a Man United side that has rescued 28 points from losing positions in 2020-21 – the third-highest single-season figure in Premier League history.
For all of their underwhelming form since the turn of the year, Liverpool have improved significantly away from home of late, winning five of their last seven league games on the road – more victories than they had managed in their previous 15 away games before that.
Three of Liverpool’s final five games of the season come away from Anfield, and a relatively kind run-in provides another reason for Klopp to be optimistic about his side’s chances of closing the gap on fourth place.
Man United are the final top-half team left to face for Liverpool this season, with Southampton, Burnley, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace to come after this weekend.
The Reds have struggled to beat those bottom-half teams this term, but will be hopeful that ending that trend with a strong finish to the campaign will be enough to salvage what has been a fairly miserable title defence, albeit with mitigating factors.
Man United would love nothing more than to pile more misery on their biggest rivals and further dent their top-four hopes this weekend, and the hosts find themselves in the enviable position of having two very promising routes into the Champions League next term.
A 12-point lead over fifth place with five games remaining means that a top-four spot is all but confirmed already, while they also put one foot in the Europa League final with a thumping win over Roma in the first leg of their semi-final on Thursday night.
A 6-2 hammering of the Serie A outfit means that it would take a remarkable collapse to keep them out of the Gdansk showpiece, where they look set to face either Villarreal or Arsenal.
With Man City’s title all but secured, Man United’s top-four spot now seemingly just a formality and the second leg of a European semi-final to come, if this was any ordinary fixture Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might be tempted to take it a bit more lightly.
However, that will not be the case with Liverpool coming to town, and should the Red Devils avoid defeat on Sunday then they would equal their longest unbeaten league run under Solskjaer of 14 games.
Not since January 27 have Man United been beaten in the Premier League, and across all competitions it is only one defeat in their last 22 outings since that shock home loss to Sheffield United.
That defeat to the Blades was their sixth at Old Trafford in 2020-21, but they have now corrected that form too and welcome Liverpool looking to make it 12 home games unbeaten across all competitions.
The last five of those have all ended in victory, while in the Premier League alone they could record five straight home wins for the first time since March 2018.
United have every reason to be confident of doing exactly that after hitting Roma for six in midweek, although their most recent league game was a rather drab and low-quality goalless draw with Leeds.
Solskjaer had rather boldly claimed that the Leeds showdown would be anything other than a 0-0 draw before that match, but it was Man United’s seventh goalless stalemate of the season – their highest tally for 40 years and more than any other club in Europe’s top five leagues.
Indeed, only in 1980-81 have they been involved in more in a single league campaign, with one of those being the reverse fixture of this match, but despite what the form book says, another point would arguably be a more satisfactory result for Man United than Liverpool this time around given the position both clubs find themselves in.
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Liverpool Premier League form:
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