In-form Red Devils will relish Old Trafford stage

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has called on his players, supporters, and himself to rise to the occasion when Liverpool visit tomorrow.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has called on his players, supporters, and himself to rise to the occasion when Liverpool visit tomorrow.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

This, Jose Mourinho vowed, "will not be a visit to the theatre". No matter the quality of the cast or how beautifully the twists in the plot are scripted, Manchester United's matches against Liverpool rarely are. They are not that refined.

Their Premier League meeting at Anfield earlier this season was billed as a blockbuster, but stripped of drama. The sequel should be rather more eventful. It is in Mourinho's interests to make it so.

His negativity was the defining theme of October's stalemate. He should approach the rematch with rather more positivity.

United were underdogs then. They are favourites now, and not just because they have home advantage.

They are looking for a 10th successive victory in all competitions, their best run since 2009, whereas Liverpool are on their worst sequence of the season. They have not won in 2017, whereas United have not conceded.

Mourinho can field almost his strongest side, lacking only centre-backs Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly while his pivotal 35-year-olds, Michael Carrick and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, may be rested. In contrast, the timing scarcely suits Jurgen Klopp. Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Joel Matip are not at peak condition after injuries.

The catalytic Sadio Mane is at the Africa Cup of Nations. Roberto Firmino could deputise on the right wing, but that would strip Liverpool of their most effective striker.

Liverpool are at their best when they are at their sharpest, but they have shown signs of fatigue recently. Klopp struggled to explain their lacklustre display when they lost 0-1 to Southampton on Wednesday.

Mourinho responded to United's 2-0 League Cup semi-final first-leg win over Hull by insisting that everyone - himself, his players and the crowd - had to do better. Forget the quiet of the theatre, he wants a raucous occasion.

Klopp usually tends to savour such atmospheres. If he might not now, he has one thing in his favour: his record against Mourinho.

The Portuguese has only won one of their six meetings, and even then it was the second leg of a Champions League semi-final from which the German's Borussia Dortmund, who had won 4-1 at home, progressed.

Klopp's Liverpool eviscerated Mourinho's Chelsea 3-1 last season. They were too quick on the counter-attack, too fast for sides who rarely played at such pace. If Mourinho opens the game up by being bolder, he runs the risk of a repeat.

Yet he should be emboldened by United's return to form and by the possibility that his in-form side may have a physical edge.

Ander Herrera was the outstanding player at Anfield three months ago and Paul Pogba has the power to seize control of the midfield.

If the world's most expensive player can do that, perhaps Mourinho will have a long-awaited meaningful win over Klopp, and a route back towards the top four.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2017, with the headline 'In-form Red Devils will relish Old Trafford stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe