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Dublin: 9°C Sunday 7 March 2021

David Meyler: Man United's return to the top adds extra spice to two Liverpool showdowns

Our columnist gives his predictions as the current Premier League leaders take on the reigning champions at Anfield this weekend.

Liverpool forward Mo Salah and Man United captain Harry Maguire when the clubs met 12 months ago.
Liverpool forward Mo Salah and Man United captain Harry Maguire when the clubs met 12 months ago.
Image: Martin Rickett

EX-IRELAND INTERNATIONAL David Meyler has joined The42 as our new football columnist for this season.

Every Friday, the former Hull City and Sunderland midfielder will give expert insight and his predictions ahead of the weekend’s Premier League action, alongside the latest William Hill prices. 

In his latest piece, he previews one of the stand-out fixtures of the season before giving his thoughts on Leicester City’s meeting with Southampton. 

Meyler WH banner

Liverpool v Manchester United, 4.30pm Sunday

Liverpool versus Manchester United is still the biggest game in English football for me.

The country’s two most successful clubs, located just 32 miles apart. If Liverpool lose, Man United fans are laughing and if United have a bad result it’s the other way around.

The fact that a large proportion of Irish fans support either one means it’s box office over there too.

I’m excited to see them occupying the top two positions in the table again, and I’d love a proper three-way title race this season with Man City thrown in, although being slightly biased, I want Liverpool to come out on top.

As we near the midway point, the top half of the table is extremely competitive and all eyes will be on Sunday’s meeting of the old rivals. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer deserves praise for the job he has done at United, particularly in recent weeks. When he took over in December 2018, there was an initial upturn in results as they went on a six-game winning streak in the league — eight matches in all competitions.

They could only finish sixth in the table that season, but claimed third in his first full campaign in charge.

This season, they have blown hot and cold. Their home form has been poor at times (four wins, two draws and three defeats) but they are unrivalled for getting results on the road (seven wins and a draw). So consistency at Old Trafford is what was lacking, but that appears to have been addressed over the past two months.

A hard-fought win away to Burnley on Tuesday night means they sit top of the table for the first time since September 2017. The last time they were first at this stage of the season was back in 2012/13 — when they won their final title under Alex Ferguson.

Current champions Liverpool remain depleted in defence so Jurgen Klopp has big decisions to make in terms or who he starts at centre-half. 19-year-old Rhys Williams was picked alongside Fabinho in their last outing — the FA Cup win over Aston Villa’s youthful side — and the teenager was caught out for Louie Barry’s well-taken goal.

Villa paid Barcelona in the region of €1 million (£800,000) for Barry, and you can see why big things are expected of the ex-Ireland underage international.

A mistake like that can happen and I’m sure it has been watched back and analysed by the player and Liverpool’s coaches. You have to remember that a year ago, Williams was on loan in the National League North with Kidderminster Harriers so the inexperienced defender is very much still learning his trade.

spbritain-liverpool-football-uefa-champions-league-liverpool-fc-vs-fc-midtjylland Liverpool's young defender Rhys Williams. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

I’m not a fan of Jordan Henderson playing centre-half as they lose too much in midfield in terms of his organisation, work rate and leadership.

Having Joel Matip back would be a major boost, especially with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez still sidelined, but if he isn’t ready I’d be more inclined to go with Williams or even another one of the young lads like Nathan Phillips partnering Fabinho at the heart of the defence.

Thiago has made a welcome return and there is no doubting his talent. He’s a magician with the ball and arrived at the club fresh from winning the treble with Bayern Munich. The question is if Henderson starts in midfield, does he sit and Thiago play in a more advanced role or should Thiago take up a deeper position?

It’s a slight concern that Liverpool’s attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane aren’t firing on all cylinders at the moment. In the past, when two weren’t scoring the other one stepped up or Diogo Jota would come in and do the business.

That hasn’t been the case of late but maybe they will show why they are regarded as one of the most-feared frontlines in world football this weekend.

For United, Paul Pogba was man of the match against Burnley thanks to a fantastic goal and his all-round contribution, and Solskjaer has been outstanding in his man-management of him.

The French midfielder has dug in and worked hard for the team since those comments from his agent Mino Raiola before the Champions League defeat to RB Leipzig.

We’ve seen the impact of Bruno Fernandes over the past 12 months, but he has dropped off from the high standards set by himself in the last couple of games. That’s normal and fortunately Pogba has been able to shine in that time.

It will be interesting to see how they line up in midfield. I expect Scott McTominay and Fred to play with Bruno in front of them. Pogba has started off the left in the past, most recently in the EFL Cup loss to Man City, and that could be where he is deployed in the hope of getting the best out of him near the opponent’s goal.  

burnley-v-manchester-united-premier-league-turf-moor Paul Pogba celebrating his winner against Burnley. Source: PA

As much as the focus is on Liverpool and Man United, I think City are coming like a train. If you look at their next few fixtures, they have got very favourable games and could be back on top by the time we reach February.

I still believe Pep Guardiola’s men are the favourites and if either Liverpool or Man United finish above them they will win the title. While City have been below par, the last few weeks have been a lot better and they’re only four points off the leaders with a game in hand.

Last season, Liverpool were relentless and the gap became so big that it was almost as if City gave up. That’s not the case now and it will come down to which group of players deal with the pressure better.

There is the added bonus in that Liverpool and United are set to meet twice in a week after being drawn in the FA Cup fourth round.

I think both managers will play pretty similar teams in the second game. Can you imagine how much of a lift it would give Solskjaer’s men to do the double over the Reds? They would surely feel like real contenders with a genuine shot at the title. Equally, it would be massive if Liverpool were to win the two matches.

So these upcoming fixtures are huge for both teams in the sense that they could go some way to shaping their seasons. I’m predicting plenty of goals, and Liverpool to win 3-2.

Leicester v Southampton, 8pm Saturday

On Saturday night, fourth-placed Leicester at home to Southampton, whose last result was the 1-0 win over Liverpool.

The confidence that Saints will have taken from that cannot be underestimated.

We saw just how much it meant to Ralph Hasenhuttl at the final whistle. ‘The Alpine Klopp’ has admired his German counterpart for many years and they did their coaching badges together.

Leicester had a 4-0 victory over Stoke in the FA Cup following the league win against Newcastle and they’re going well.

leicester-city-v-aek-athens-uefa-europa-league-group-g-king-power-stadium Leicester City's Harvey Barnes. Source: PA

It’s one of those games where I can see both teams scoring and somebody nicking it at the end.

Southampton have kept three clean sheets in their last three matches but I will go with 2-1 Leicester. If the Foxes score it’s generally Jamie Vardy, but Harvey Barnes is in flying form so they could both be among the goals.

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