Manchester United v Liverpool is one of the most hyped fixtures on the footballing calendar. But like many much-hyped events – the release of a new James Bond film, a weekend away in Brighton, your wedding day – the unvarnished outcome is more often than not a sclerotic trudge through a beige wasteland of boredom and bitter, crushing, existential disappointment.
6 of the last 10 Premier League encounters between the two sides have ended in stale draws. Why should Sunday’s encounter be any different? Well, simply because Liverpool really need to win.
Dropped points against Leeds and Newcastle have left the Merseyside Reds in genuine danger of missing out on next season’s Champions League. An outcome owners Fenway Sports fear to such an extent that they were prepared to join the European Super League, which would have put the pesky rigmarole of having to qualify for things straight in the trash. It’s a bit of a shame then, that it was precisely the proposal of the ESL that lit a fire under a Leeds side who, until the offensive blueprints were spread across the table, had very little to play for.
If Liverpool win all of their remaining 5 fixtures they will finish the season on 69 points. Last season they ended up with 99. And you don’t need an MSc in Advanced Mathematics to conclude that – wait, let me just do the sums one more time, yes, same answer – somewhere over the course of the season, 30 points have gone missing.
Where did they go? It’s a complex equation of injuries to key players + general fatigue + drops in form + lack of home support + absences of plan Bs. Heavy Metal football has fallen down the charts and has been replaced with fey, whispered vocals and some light, rudimentary strumming on a taped-up old ukulele. And, try as he might, Jürgen Klopp can’t seem to find a way to hold Gary Neville responsible for any of it.
Liverpool’s turn-of-the-year slump triggered harrowing flashbacks of Borussia Dortmund’s infamous implosion of 2014, where the Klopp-run side weren’t just a bit off the pace, they were absolutely rock bottom of the Bundesliga. ‘Everything has an end. Apart from a sausage. Which has two,’ Klopp confidently declared at the time. And these wise, inspiring words had the desired effect: Dortmund slowly clawed their way up the table and finished the season in 7th. But the damage had been done, and a bruised, weary Jürgen handed in his notice at the Westfalenstadion.
But have his recent struggles left him contemplating either end of his Anfield sausage? Or is that simply a wurst-case scenario?
Man Utd appear to be safely in the Top 4, and also now have several toes in the Europa League Final. New arrivals, with the odd exception of Donny van de Beek, have flourished under Solskjaer. Edinson Cavani, about whom there was little excitement when he touched down in Manchester, has perfectly illustrated the benefits of having a proper, old-fashioned number 9 in your team. Desire; strength; darting runs into space; powerful, accurate headers…are just some of things Anthony Martial does not provide on a regular basis.
United must now be hoping they can persuade Cavani to stay for one more season before he jets off to fulfil his lifelong dream: to play the lead role in a new film by Pedro Almadóvar. Cavani is currently pencilled-in to star as Ignacio, a retired toreador who, alongside his elder brother (a grieving priest, played by Antonio Banderas) embarks on an epic motorcycle quest across the Tabernas Desert to find a missing chihuahua (played by Penelope Cruz).
Or he might want to go back to South America and play for Boca Juniors. It’s one or the other. Either way, we’d better make the most of his presence, goals, and protruding catwalk chiselled cheekbones while we still have the chance. Because those are qualities that cannot be over-hyped.