On Sunday Manchester United will shuffle in to Anfield fearing the worst and simply hoping they can escape relatively unscathed. It has been 26 years since such a dispirited band of United players will have arrived to play their biggest rivals.
It was in May 1992 that a disheveled United faced Liverpool knowing they needed to beat them to keep alive their hopes of winning their first league title for a quarter of a century.
But that day they lost 2-0 to an emboldened Liverpool, and suffered the agony of surrendering the title in front of a gleeful Anfield, who naturally reveled in their disappointment.
A set of Liverpool fans unfurled a banner that said, ‘Have you ever seen United win the league?’
United went on to dominate English football and win 13 league titles, but those days are now long gone, and not since 2013 have United even been involved in a title race.
This clash throws together two teams in contrasting moods; Liverpool are top of the league, and beginning to believe they can be champions for the first time in nearly three decades, while United’s hopes are limited to merely finishing in the top four.
After only 16 games, the two sides are already separated by a mammoth 16 points, with Liverpool remaining the only unbeaten team in the Premier League, while United have already lost four times, to Brighton, Tottenham, West Ham and Manchester City.
Liverpool have conceded only six goals, the joint-fewest ever of any side in the top division of English football at this stage of the season. It should come as no surprise that half of the players in Liverpool’s top six according to Twelve’s algorithm are defenders.
Meanwhile, United have allowed 26 goals past them, incredibly two less than they conceded in the whole of last season.
And Liverpool will come in to this game on a considerable high after reaching the knock-out stages of the Champions League with an impressive 1-0 win over Napoli at Anfield on Tuesday.
United will join them in the last sixteen, but they limped in to it with a 2-1 defeat to Valencia on Wednesday; yet another abject performance that had Jose Mourinho grimacing on the sidelines.
And so it would seem a Liverpool win is a certainty on Sunday afternoon to aid their title chase, and simultaneously inflict more pain on United and their stumbling season. No one would be surprised to see Liverpool’s attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané feasting on United’s weak defence and recording a comfortable win.
And yet, something gives you pause for thought that this might not be such a predictable game.
If playing at Anfield and causing serious damage to their biggest rival’s title bid cannot rouse United then there really is something very wrong with this side. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement triggered United’s decline over the last five years, they have always managed to raise their game and put on a performance at Anfield.
United might have lost to Liverpool in September 2013 under David Moyes, but since then they have remained unbeaten in their last four league visits to Anfield, winning twice and drawing twice.
Throughout all the turgid football at Old Trafford in the last two and a half years, Jose Mourinho has still not lost his knack of winning games against the bigger teams here and across Europe. In 2018, Mourinho has guided United to wins over Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, and even against Juventus in Turin last month in the Champions League.
There are few managers better at setting up a team not to lose, which Liverpool will remember from when Jose Mourinho brought his Chelsea side to Anfield in April 2014 and engineered an unlikely 2-0 win to derail their title hopes that season.
Even though Liverpool boast an incredible defensive record, and have only conceded one goal in their last 11 league games at Anfield, it is possible to see United scoring, with Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku beginning to rediscover their scoring touch.
United will be further augmented if Anthony Martial, their most outstanding attacking player this season, returns from injury.
What seems less likely is United’s porous and constantly changing defence being capable of stopping Liverpool for ninety minutes. After watching Phil Jones implode at the Mestalla on Wednesday night, Jürgen Klopp will be confident of breaching this defence.
A home win seems the most likely result on Sunday afternoon, but United have the perfect platform to launch a comeback and avoid being another Liverpool victim in their mounting title challenge.