Man United v Liverpool – Top Four Fight
We’re into the final few months of the season now and things are getting tight at both ends of the table.
Whilst Arsenal remain back in 5th, they are just a point behind Manchester United in 3rd and, quite predictably, are coming on strong now they’ve all their injured players back and flying. You’d have to think with such a formidable squad at his disposal, Arsene Wenger’s side look in pole position to finish just behind Chelsea and Man City.
Man United Issues
Behind those three, there is serious competition in the chasing pack for the final Champions League spot. Liverpool’s recent superb form has seen them ascend to 7th, just five points off Manchester United. Some Red Devils’ fans may be aghast at the thought but one wonders whether Louis Van Gaal’s side might just have their work cut out to make the Top Four come May.
Looking at the league table, you’d think all looks quite rosy for the Dutchman and his team but dig a little deeper and there are still teething problems that could snowball in the final stretch. In a lot of their games, even when winning, they just don’t look very impressive. Some may say that is the sign of a good team but they have yet to really show that quality in any consistent way and a lot of their wins have been off the back of some deadly finishing and scarcely believable goal-keeping.
Joey Barton referred to them last night as “the worst side he’s played all year” and while that may be an exaggeration, there is a severe lack of cohesion and quality to much of their play. It’s particularly aimless at times with passing for passing’s sake;
Phil Jones on corner-taking duty a microcosm of the confusion surrounding Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’
The summer signings have yet to really take off, too. Angel Di Maria, after a bright start, has slightly faded whilst Falcao has yet to live up to his reputation as one of the world’s best strikers. Ander Herrera has been marginalised despite his obvious talent and the defence – although looking quite solid – will not win league titles. Their overall performances have been odd – just about doing enough but not really exceeding expectations.
Louis Van Gaal must be nervously looking over his shoulder at a Liverpool side starting to motor. Brendan Rodgers has finally found a formation that works and sit top of the form table with five wins and a draw from their last six. The Reds are unbeaten since that hugely unlucky defeat at Old Trafford back in mid-December in which they battered United for most of the game and still somehow lost 3-0.
The return of Daniel Sturridge should not be underestimated, either. The former Man City and Chelsea striker is a massive component of this Liverpool attack and his goalscoring appearance after five long months out injured will be a massive boost; not just in adding a clinical edge to a forward line that is already creating numerous chances but a re-emergence that could also spark the millstone that has become Mario Balotelli.
The Italian international has struggled badly in Sturridge’s absence mostly because he just isn’t good at being the focal point of an attack. The former Milan striker works most effectively in tandem with other more mobile forwards whose movement around him allows his most potent strengths to flourish. With the England international back fit and firing amongst a Liverpool attack hitting full flow, Balotelli may begin to realise his potential now the pressure is off his shoulders.
Liverpool also look to have the easier run-in with United having to face their arch-rivals at Anfield as well as Spurs, Everton, Man City, Arsenal and Chelsea in their final 10 league games.
The caveat in all this is Liverpool’s continued presence in midweek European football. The troublesome Europa League fixtures present Rodgers with a headache in that, whilst Manchester United rest up between weekend games, his Liverpool side must travel to the other side of the continent and back. The winners of the competition gain entry to next season’s Champions League so an all-out assault on it has to be of benefit in case they don’t make up the ground.
With 15 rounds left to go, though, it’s all to play for with many complications abound but with Liverpool starting to click and Louis Van Gaal’s men, relatively speaking, flattering to deceive, the Reds look a good bet to nab a Top Four spot ahead of their bitter rivals.