Manchester United-Liverpool Preview
Liverpool's defence, or lack thereof, has been one of the talking points of the first two-plus months of the Premier League season. Due to the injury of striker Sadio Mane, the spotlight on that unit has grown brighter heading into Saturday's high-profile clash at Anfield against Manchester United.
The Reds (3-3-1) enter this contest seventh in the table, trailing Burnley on goal difference. Their 12 goals conceded are joint-third worst in the Premier League, better than only West Ham United (13) and Crystal Palace (17). Liverpool have just two clean sheets in 12 matches across all competitions and none since their 4-0 rout of Arsenal on Aug. 27.
Manager Jurgen Klopp is without some of his first-choice players on the back line, as Nathaniel Clyne and Dejan Lovren are both set to miss this contest with back injuries. But his margin of error was greatly reduced over the weekend with the looming absence of Mane, who suffered a hamstring injury in the final minutes of Senegal's 2-0 victory over Cape Verde Islands in World Cup qualifying Saturday and is expected to miss six weeks.
Knowing one of their top offensive contributors is out means Liverpool's defence likely needs to buckle down even more and avoid falling behind.
Mane had three goals in five league matches for Liverpool and his pace clearly causes problems for opponents. The Reds average 2.2 goals when Mane plays compared to 1.6 when he doesn't, and they won just once in seven matches last season when he represented Senegal in the African Cup of Nations, effectively scuttling their title hopes.
Mane's absence means Liverpool will likely cycle midfielders Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Philippe Coutinho as false No. 9s, as the trio have accounted for 13 of the team's 22 goals in all competitions. The challenge becomes whether any of them can get through Manchester United's spine of holding midfielder Nemanja Matic and central defenders Eric Bially and Phil Jones or try and use the channels in a wider attack.
Salah may be Klopp's first choice to be up front after the Egypt international converted a 95th-minute penalty to see the Pharaohs through to the World Cup for the first time since 1990. It continued a fine run of form for the attacking midfielder, who has a team-high six goals in all competitions.
"That was to me a dream come true, whether as a footballer or an Egyptian citizen or fan," Salah told Liverpool's official website. "When I stepped up to take the penalty, I didn't think of anything but scoring and winning the game."
Manchester United (6-1-0), trailing table-topping Manchester City by the slimmest of goal difference, aren't going to have much pity for Liverpool considering they are dealing with injury issues of their own. Midfielders Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini are out, and Jones is uncertain for this match after pulling out of England's squad for their final two World Cup qualifiers during the international break.
"From what I read, I don't think he can play the match," manager Jose Mourinho told the team's official website regarding Fellaini. "Another one plays and it's no problem for me. … We trust every player. We lost players last season and we lost players this season. With our way of thinking and feeling, it really is no problem.
"One player not playing means another one plays. It's an opportunity for another one and we trust them. We never hide behind this or that player or this and that injury. We trust the ones who are going to play."
Of course, it's a little easier to deal with injuries when your top striker is in scintillating form.
Romelu Lukaku shook off a knock to his ankle to score in Belgium's final World Cup qualifier and has seven goals in a six-game scoring streak across all competitions for United. He has 11 goals in 10 matches, including the Community Shield, since arriving from Everton this summer.
As always, Mourinho has done his part in deflecting pressure off his players and onto himself through the media as the expectations rise for United to turn the Premier League season into a long game of cat and mouse in Manchester as his side and Pep Guardiola's City continue to pile up the goals and lopsided victories. He's already labeled the trip to Anfield as "just a three-point match" and explained his rationale behind it.
"It's three points not four," he said. "If we are at a moment in a season where the duel between the two teams ensures the result will mean more than three points, then yes. Sometimes a draw or even to lose by a certain goal difference is important. In this case, it's not important. It's just a three-point match.
"Do I like going to Anfield? Yes, I love it," Mourinho added. "Do I like to play against Liverpool? Yes. I like amazing stadiums, the best opponents but the preparation is not different. It's just a match."
Lukaku is well-acquainted with Liverpool from all his Merseyside derbies playing for Everton. He has five goals in 10 lifetime matches against the Reds, but Anfield has been a bit of a bogey ground for the forward, whose only goal there came in 2013 when playing for West Bromwich Albion.
The teams played to a pair of draws last season, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal on 84 minutes canceling out James Milner's penalty. Liverpool are 1-3-0 in the last four between the sides, which included eliminating Manchester United in a two-legged playoff in the round of 16 in the 2016 Europa League.
The Red Devils are 12-5-10 at Anfield in the Premier League era, including a 3-1-2 mark in the last six in all competitions. They also had won the previous four between the teams before Liverpool's current four-match run.
Updated October 12, 2017