Manchester United vs Liverpool is the blockbuster clash that heralds the return of the English Premier League this weekend. Despite the contrasting fortunes of these bitter rivals over the years, derby day has always been a fiercely contested encounter.
Of course, this season Liverpool arrive at Old Trafford with an eight-point lead at the top of the table - although it is still far too early to declare the title race over - and they have lost just one league match this calendar year. Jurgen Klopp's side arrive full of confidence and vigour. Manchester United, on the other hand, are lurching between a near-permanent state of transition and outright disarray, having already fallen a whopping 15 points behind their rivals, without an away win in any competition since March, and having realistically abandoned any quest to recapture a top-four finish this year.
An illustration of United's fall from grace comes when you consider a likely combined-XI between the respective sides, with English pundit Danny Mills, somewhat controversially suggesting that the entire combined-XI would consist of Liverpool players. While Mills has never been one to shy away from provocation, his disdain for United's current form and lack of quality is hard to argue against.
Despite spending a world-record fee of £85M on Harry Maguire— who has improved the United defence—Mills opted for the vastly improved Joel Matip alongside his imperious colleague, Virgil van Dijk. The full-back positions cannot seriously be debated, with the Liverpool duo light years ahead of their counterparts in Manchester. Likewise in attack, with Liverpool's dynamic trio of (Mo) Salah, (Sadio) Mane, and Roberto Firmino providing everything that the Red Devils so obviously lack. Opinion may be divided on the merits of David de Gea, the once-mighty Spaniard suffering an extended run of atrocious form, but he would surely pip Liverpool back-up stopper, Adrian, even if Alisson Becker surpasses both.
The main area of contention, in my opinion, would be in midfield, where United are poor and Liverpool demonstrate their weakness. The 'go-to' Liverpool midfield of (Jordan) Henderson, Fabinho and (Gini) Wijnaldum is functional rather than dynamic, workmanlike rather than creative, and lacks real movement and guile. Naby Keita adds energy with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's drive, but neither are fit and thus can be discounted. United's central options are scratchy at best, but surely a fit and motivated Paul Pogba would warrant a place in a combined-XI? The sad reality though is that Pogba has been neither fit nor motivated at Old Trafford for some time.
With a fearful Ole Gunnar Solskjaer likely to deploy his trademark defensive wall - he selected four full-backs and three midfield anchors in the corresponding 0-0 fixture last season - I expect an attritional contest with United preferring damage limitation and Liverpool's attacking pace and flair being tested by such a deep-lying defensive line.
Who do you think would make a combined-XI? Could Manchester United exploit the counter-attack, especially if Liverpool become frustrated by a lack of space? Can the beleaguered Solskjaer survive a hammering at the hands of their fiercest rivals, or will defeat to Liverpool be the final nail in the coffin for the second successive Manchester United manager?
This article was written by a Soccer Laduma reader