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Liverpool v Man United tactical preview: Fernandes and Thiago set for battle of midfield maestros

The most titanic clash between Liverpool and Manchester United of recent years takes place on Sunday with three points separating the top two sides ahead of kick-off.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes his side’s trip to Anfield could not have come at a better time after going top of the pile with victory against Burnley on Tuesday.

United have won each of their last four top-flight games and have remarkably not lost in the Premier League since the defeat by Arsenal in November when the Norwegian was heavily under the cosh.

Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League champions meanwhile continue to feel the absence of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez at the heart of the defence, with the Reds winless in the Premier League since their 7-0 mauling of Crystal Palace.

However, the Anfield side have a favourable record under the German against United on home soil, but how will both bosses set up, and where will the game be won and lost? Here, Sportsmail takes a look at the key battles ahead of this momentous clash. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seen his men with their last four top-flight games

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seen his men with their last four top-flight games

Jurgen Klopp's side meanwhile are winless in three Premier League matches

Jurgen Klopp's side meanwhile are winless in three Premier League matches

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United take on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in a titanic clash

Head-to-head record

Manchester United may have achieved one of their short-term goals during the week but another presents itself almost immediately at Anfield.

The game marks exactly five years to the day since the club’s last victory at their rivals’ backyard, when a late Wayne Rooney strike settled a scrappy encounter.

That was Klopp’s first experience of the historic fixture, but since that day in 2016, he has beaten the Old Trafford outfit on three occasions and drawn the other two on home soil.

The former Borussia Dortmund boss only took two months following the defeat to exact revenge, seeing his side beat United 2-0 in the first leg of the club’s first ever European clash in the year they reached the Europa League final.

United have not won at Anfield since a Wayne Rooney goal sealed a scrappy 1-0 win in 2016

United have not won at Anfield since a Wayne Rooney goal sealed a scrappy 1-0 win in 2016

United have not won at Anfield since a Wayne Rooney goal sealed a scrappy 1-0 win in 2016

Two goalless stalemates failed to draw much notice thereafter but they have returned to winning ways in the last two seasons.

The first in the 2018-19 campaign came with Xherdan Shaqiri the hero and his two late goals to fire a lacklustre side to victory, and there was similar elation and eruption in the stands when Mohamed Salah finished a swift counter to seal another win in January 2020. 

Solskjaer believes United are ‘in a good position’ going into the latest instalment, but recent displays in this fixture will concern him slightly. Should he strike gold though, it could bring about the greatest reward in helping elevate players and fans’ belief that this is their year.

Xherdan Shaqiri and Mohamed Salah have scored important goals in recent Liverpool success

Xherdan Shaqiri and Mohamed Salah have scored important goals in recent Liverpool success

Xherdan Shaqiri and Mohamed Salah have scored important goals in recent Liverpool success

Visitors need patchy Wan-Bissaka to come good

If there was one drawback from United’s win at Burnley, it was that Aaron Wan-Bissaka failed to show any signs of rising from his current slump in what has been a frustrating season for him.

Constantly targeted by the Burnley attackers and bombarded with aerial duels from diagonal balls which he failed to win, his defensive output in recent weeks is now becoming of commensurate concern as his end product at the other end.

Reports claim the club are concerned about Wan-Bissaka’s progress, with the right-back earning mixed reviews since his £45million move from Crystal Palace in June 2019.

There was very little from the 23-year-old going forward at Turf Moor and the club reportedly want him to register more assists, having managed just two this season and six altogether in his Old Trafford career.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka's patchy form continued as he was targeted by Burnley's attacking force

Aaron Wan-Bissaka's patchy form continued as he was targeted by Burnley's attacking force

Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s patchy form continued as he was targeted by Burnley’s attacking force

The 23-year-old has nevertheless proved his defensive credentials with his sturdy, reliable performances in 2020, but those will be put to the test when he is not in the best of form against the league’s most ruthless finisher in Sadio Mane.

The Senegalese has nine goals and six assists this season and showed his aerial prowess against an albeit inexperienced Aston Villa in their FA Cup third round tie with a superb header to put the Reds ahead.

Without fail, he harries every single one of his opponents, and that is likely to continue on Liverpool’s left wing as he tries to make himself a nuisance once more, while his threat in their air adds a whole new dimension to the conundrum Wan-Bissaka faces.

The basics are there in Wan-Bissaka’s game to turn out a good performance, however the current signs look ominous at best. 

He will be up against Sadio Mane, who will look to challenge him out wide and in the air too

He will be up against Sadio Mane, who will look to challenge him out wide and in the air too

He will be up against Sadio Mane, who will look to challenge him out wide and in the air too

Fernandes and Thiago set to do battle in momentous midfield clash

The latest editions of this historic fixture have rarely been goal-fests, with Liverpool’s 3-1 victory in December 2018 the highest-scoring game at Anfield.

But this match could well be the turning point where cagey, tight affairs turn into end-to-end thrillers, with two of the most creative players in Europe on the same pitch.

Bruno Fernandes’ role in United’s transformation into title contenders has been nothing short of stunning, with a whopping 15 goals and nine assists already this season.

Bruno Fernandes' role in United's transformation into title contenders has been enormous

Bruno Fernandes' role in United's transformation into title contenders has been enormous

Bruno Fernandes’ role in United’s transformation into title contenders has been enormous

Leading by example is a cliche that is banded around footballing spheres far too often but the Portuguese personifies what is usually meant when the term is mentioned, and there is a sense he understands the responsibility he shoulders.

Very rarely does he fade or cower away on the pitch, and has produced some of the finest moments for Solskjaer’s men this season, and there are currently few players in the league that can go toe-to-toe with him on the creativity front.

One of those stars however who can match him for flair and invention is Liverpool’s Thiago Alcanatara, with the former Bayern Munich midfielder’s life to Anfield beginning with frustrations around an ankle injury and positive Covid-19 test.

But since his recovery there have been just glimpses that he is ready to explode with his new club and add to the verve created by the front three of Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino. 

Thiago has only looked good in glimpses due to injuries and a positive coronavirus test

Thiago has only looked good in glimpses due to injuries and a positive coronavirus test

Thiago has only looked good in glimpses due to injuries and a positive coronavirus test

‘He’s playing a different type of game than everyone else. His disguise on passes is unbelievable,’ Michael Owen said after Thiago’s 45-minute cameo against Aston Villa in the FA Cup.

Albeit against their U23s, Thiago helped a Liverpool side struggling to dispatch their youth team but used all his experience to help them turn it around.

Now he is tasked with putting a frustrating start behind him and fighting it out with Fernandes to see who can provide this biggest drive from midfield and steer their side to victory through their guile and goalscoring and goal-creating ability.

Whoever does that more efficiently and with more quality on Sunday may well be the difference maker on the day. 

Frustrated Klopp up against it in facing serene Solskjaer 

Liverpool boss Klopp perhaps has more headaches than his Norwegian counterpart heading into the mouthwatering clash.

Centre-back Joel Matip is in a race against time to be ready for their massive clash against United after suffering an adductor injury against West Brom last month.

Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez’s long-term absences were papered over well initially by Liverpool but they have felt the loss of the two first-choice central defenders in recent weeks.

The uncertainty over Matip also leaves Fabinho – and Klopp for that matter – in limbo as to whether he will start in central defence or the most deep-lying midfielder, and there is little clarity over whether his partner Nat Phillips or even Jordan Henderson, as was the case at Southampton.

Centre-back Joel Matip is in a race against time to be ready for the clash against United

Centre-back Joel Matip is in a race against time to be ready for the clash against United

Centre-back Joel Matip is in a race against time to be ready for the clash against United

Klopp perhaps has let recent frustration seep into his conversations with the media, but it something he must ensure does not boil over and take centre stage on Sunday.

‘I hear now that Manchester United had more penalties in two years than I had in five-and-a-half years,’ he said after moaning that Sadio Mane should have a spot kick at St Mary’s.

Solskjaer hit back at Klopp calmly by making a cheeky reference to Rafael Benitez’s infamous ‘facts’ rant when he was Liverpool boss and suggested the German is trying to influence referees.

‘I don’t know how many penalties they’ve had. I don’t count how many penalties they have, so if they want to spend time on worrying about when we get fouled in the box, I don’t spend time on that.’

Solskjaer wants to end United's torrid Anfield run but has more positive headaches than Klopp

Solskjaer wants to end United's torrid Anfield run but has more positive headaches than Klopp

Solskjaer wants to end United’s torrid Anfield run but has more positive headaches than Klopp

What he will be mulling over however is finding a way to end United’s torrid winless run at Anfield.

Devising a plan to make that a reality however has provided him with positive headaches in midfield and attack.

Paul Pogba’s recent displays may see him consider playing four midfielders in a diamond, whereas Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford could fill in for Anthony Martial if his injury is to keep him out. 

The Norwegian has few other injury concerns, and if his team manage to remain as calm and resolute as their manager, United could well sit six points clear at the top at the end of the day’s play. 

Cavani can make his presence felt against Liverpool centre-backs

Manchester United’s gameplan against a combative Burnley was clearly to match their hosts physically and despite a few rough challenges, that is exactly what they managed to do.

Eric Bailly was at the back, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic were in the middle, and Edinson Cavani started up top.

Cavani had an early talking to from referee Kevin Friend but continue to lunge in and be on the receiving end of strong tackles in an intense affair at Turf Moor.

The 33-year-old scored four goals for United before the ban imposed on him by the Football Association for his controversial Instagram post, and while he did not add to that tally he got into dangerous positions and was even hacked down when through on goal. 

Edinson Cavani gave it as good as he got at Burnley and will look to unsettle Liverpool

Edinson Cavani gave it as good as he got at Burnley and will look to unsettle Liverpool

Edinson Cavani gave it as good as he got at Burnley and will look to unsettle Liverpool

It is in the Uruguayan’s nature to give it as good as he has got and in a game of Sunday’s magnitude he will once more rise to the occasion.

The question remains if amid all the uncertainty, the Liverpool centre-backs will be in the frame of mind to match him every step of the way.

The timing and execution of his runs towards the near post and in the penalty area have caused the best defenders issues throughout his career, and he will remain a threat from set pieces too. 

But with Klopp currently being forced into new combinations practically every game, Cavani is primed to unsettle an unfamiliar pairing both physically and with his movement, and eyes will be drawn how the duo who start at the heart of the defence tactically combine to avert the danger posed from the former PSG forward.

Source: Daily

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