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Old Trafford

LET’S start with the positives for Manchester United, as they ready themselves for the visit this Sunday of their archest rivals. This won’t take long.

All season, the form and development of Alejandro Garnacho has been a source of encouragement, the winger averaging 1.4 key passes and 2.5 shots per 90. At Stamford Bridge midweek the Argentine became the first teenager since Michael Owen to score 2+ goals on three occasions in a top-flight campaign.

Elsewhere, Kobbie Mainoo’s emergence impresses, and at times has astonished, while Andre Onana has proven himself to be an agile and highly competent shot-stopper.

Beyond these things it is necessary to scrabble about, looking for anything that sparkles but merely finding milk bottle tops. The kit looks nice. They’re somehow sixth.

What about Rasmus Hojlund, you may ask, and while it’s true that the Dane finally showed he has goals in his boots prior to succumbing to injury – a huge plus given his transfer fee and the narrative that was building around him – he has unquestionably not been right since.

The harum-scarum nature of Thursday’s ridiculous game should have been a gift for any striker with a cool head and ruthless eye, but Hojlund was ineffective throughout. He lost possession eight times and won none of his three aerial duels. He didn’t appear to be fully fit and it’s fair to say that Virgil Van Dijk won’t be having too many nightmares going into the weekend.

As for Bruno Fernandes, he of the 11 league goal involvements and 89 chances created in 2023/24, how he adversely impacts his team’s shape and temperament will always negate any good he brings to it. Sometimes partly, sometimes wholly.

United have picked up exactly twice as many yellow cards as Liverpool from their last ten meetings, plus three reds. United most cards feels a safe bet at 17/20

And so to the negatives, and this will have to be abridged because kick-off is only two days away.

Despite the rest of football informing Erik Ten Hag that his method is utter madness he persists with the contradictory approaches of pressing from the front but having his back-line drop deep, and the vast chasm of space this affords centrally has been capitalized upon all season by grateful opponents. Moreover, it’s a problem only getting worse as teams now prepare to capitalize upon it ahead of time.

Such will be the way with Liverpool, the absolute masters at tormenting an exposed and back-pedaling back four but before we come to the damage they can enact, it’s worth revisiting last night’s shenanigans in West London, a game that had the visitors obsess on transition and in doing so facilitate sustained chaos throughout.

If we’re being really blunt about it, this was a pair of basket-cases playing basketball, a match where your neck ached from so much toing and froing, and by the end of 100 thoroughly enjoyable minutes two truths stood tall above the craziness and the drama, the first of which is a psychological angle but pertinent, nonetheless.

In the space of a week, United have twice led after 98 minutes only to ultimately draw and lose and it should not be under-estimated how demotivating this will be to a squad that has previously had its mental strength questioned many times over.

The Reds’ biggest hope this weekend was to try and replicate the fire and passion that resulted in a 4-3 cup win over Liverpool in mid-March. Yet just three days prior to battle commencing, several of their players lay flat-out on the Stamford Bridge pitch. Bereft. Broken.

The last five meetings have produced 11.6 corners per 90. It would be rude then to ignore the 22/25 available for over 11.5 corners total

The second truth concerns the 28 shots Chelsea managed to execute.

A lot has been made of the staggering volume of shots United have faced in 2024 and rightly so, it surpassing any other team in the Premier League. It’s a hundred more than Brighton. It’s three times the number Arsenal have conceded. It’s 19 more than Sheffield United, who may statistically go down in May as the worst defence the Premier League has ever known.

Equating to 22.5 per game, to put the 225 shots faced in ten league games in context, try to recall Liverpool beating Newcastle 4-2 on New Year’s Day. It’s difficult as it was so long ago but ever since that afternoon, United have conceded an attempt on their goal every four minutes in the league. That whole time. It’s a good job then that Onana is agile and highly competent.  

Liverpool have accrued a league-high of 208 shots on target this term. Over 6.5 for the visitors this Sunday offers up 5/6

Lastly, there is another major concern, this one not of their own making.

Thursday evening saw first Raphael Varane limp off, then his replacement Jonny Evans, and though Lisandro Martinez may be in contention to return from a calf strain it will be with negligible fitness. Luke Shaw meanwhile is still out, requiring Diogo Dalot to shift across, and with a first-choice back-line you’d be fearful of what Liverpool’s swarm of attacking can do against them, so often exposed as they are.

With a patched-up, rejigged rearguard, this one could get ugly.

Ugly, but not silly, as other scorelines have been in this fixture with Liverpool previously blasting fours and fives past their historical nemesis at Old Trafford, even racking up seven 12 months ago at Anfield.

The bigger picture has Jurgen Klopp’s men immersed in a three-way title race and though it’s tempting to think of this fixture as a stand-alone, for the players three points will more than suffice.

It’s rare therefore that a scoreline is predicted on these pages but a 3-0 or 3-1 away win feels about right. It will be one-sided but not comprehensive, the visitors keeping a little back in reserve.

As for who will fire the bullets we must first turn to Mo Salah who boasts a remarkable return in this game, with 17 goal involvements from 14 prior meetings. Darwin Nunez meanwhile has notched seven in his last nine starts and it’s all-too-easy picturing Alexis Mac Allister reveling in the acres of space created by Ten Hag’s deeply flawed mandate.

It should also worry the hosts that Liverpool have recent form for scoring late in contests, with four converted beyond the 80th minute from their last six league outings.

Back over 2.5 goals for Liverpool, the visitors to win the second half, and Nunez to score anytime at 49/20

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