It’s the fixture that is always marked before any season begins as one that would garner the interests of two of the largest fan bases around the world and indeed the neutrals. This is the case even when either – or both – side aren’t doing too well.
Manchester United and Liverpool is the greatest rivalry in English football. It’s a tussle between the two most decorated clubs in England.
Intriguingly though, United and Liverpool haven’t went one on one for silverware in ages. The 2008/09 season was the last time these two really contested the league title. 1996 was the last time they played the FA Cup final – 2003 the last League Cup final. The 2016 Europa League Round of 16 matchup was the closest they’ve come to a meaningful European matchup in recent times.
Despite so much history and the heated rivalry going down decades, Liverpool and United matches usually mean more to one side than they do to other – at least in terms of tangible stakes, if not the bragging rights. And Sunday’s clash, on paper, is pretty much the same.
Liverpool are looking to win their first league title in three decades. Manchester United are eying a top-four spot. While they’re both the front-runners in their respective races, as things stand, there is an obvious disparity in what is at stake for both sides.
A couple of months ago, Liverpool would’ve been hot favourites for the clash – even at Old Trafford. In fact the two sides did meet a couple of months ago, as Liverpool came out 3-1 victors at Anfield, walking all over United. It prompted the sacking of then manager Jose Mourinho.
Following the defeat at Liverpool, United were 11 points off Top 4, which at the time looked like a delusional ambition. Two months later they’re the form team in England under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, having already made their way into the Top 4, by only dropping two points in the league all this time, and capitalising on slip-ups from Chelsea and Arsenal.
In the same time, Liverpool have gone from being the league challengers, to being firm favourites, to being slightly ahead in the title race. As things stand, they’re level on points at the top of the table with Manchester City with a game in hand
Liverpool’s many doubters are expecting them to slip up and hand City the title – which is what happened in 2014. Similarly, those backing the club expect them to ward off the challenge from a City side that isn’t as all-conquering as it was last year.
With the league title in their own hands, Sunday’s trip to Old Trafford is their toughest challenge domestically for the remainder of the season. A win here and regardless of what City – who play the League Cup final against Chelsea on Sunday – do next, Liverpool would be announced as the firm favourites to be the champions this year.
On the contrary, a defeat could be particularly damaging, even if it would still mean they’d be even with City on points and games played. Defeats for United or Liverpool against each other always have more ripples than any other game – just ask Mourinho. And hence, the aura that Liverpool have right now – which is absolutely that of a side set to win the league – might be jeopardised.
For United, Sunday’s game is as much about consolidating their position in the Top 4, as it is about proving that they can take on one of the best in England and in Europe and beat them. After being completely outplayed 0-2 at home in the Champions League by Paris Saint Germaine, another defeat against Liverpool would mean that while United would have significantly improved under Solskjaer, they’re still not good enough to challenge for the biggest titles.
In many ways, the Liverpool clash is the final audition for Solskjaer as well. If United do beat Liverpool and finish in the Top 4 at the end of the season, it would be hard to see anyone else getting the permanent job at Old Trafford barring the Norwegian. Fail to win against Liverpool – and City at home later in the season – coupled with the expected exit from the Champions League, and one feels that even winning the FA Cup might not be enough for Solskjaer.
But those are the subplots. What matters on Sunday is who gets the three points, which are so critical for both sides.
As clubs, however, one feels that there is a lot more at stake for Liverpool. A win would push them closer to the title, and perhaps even a draw mightn’t be the worst result in the world. Manchester United and Solskjaer absolutely need to win, if they want to prove that they’d be among the elite heading into next season.