Manchester United were the history makers whose task now is to prevent their fiercest rivals from equalling a record. Liverpool go to Old Trafford looking for Jurgen Klopp’s first victory there, but their 18th in as many Premier League games. It would equal Manchester City’s divisional mark and reinforce Pep Guardiola’s belief that the leaders are looking unstoppable.
And yet recent history may offer United encouragement. Their fortunes have fallen to such an extent that a stalemate would seem a triumph. As is the case now, when Liverpool went to Old Trafford in February, injuries were United’s constant companion. Then Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and the substitute Jesse Lingard all went off before half-time, with a semi-fit Marcus Rashford hobbling on until the end. Now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is deprived of Paul Pogba while a lengthy list of doubts includes David de Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Lingard.
Yet the patched up secured a point eight months ago. Liverpool, deprived of two, finished one behind City. United’s depleted, undefeated outfit played a part in extending their foes’ wait to become champions of England into a 30th year.
Now Jurgen Klopp senses that the build-up, the inquests into United’s plight, the suggestions Solskjaer is not up to the job, will enable the Norwegian to construct a siege mentality. “In the dressing room, that’s the one advantage they have at the moment,” the German noted.
Solskjaer has talked of United needing to take more risks. In the broader scheme of things, he needs to conjure more goals from a side who have only struck twice in the league since August. Yet for all United’s attacking traditions, this is a day when many of their supporters would settle for stifling and subduing. Anything to halt Liverpool.
Klopp drew on Bundesliga derbies for an example. “One of the biggest games for Dortmund before I took over as manager when they hadn't been so successful was when they beat Schalke and Schalke could have been champions,” he noted.
“They celebrated like Dortmund were champions and yet they were not. They were sixth or seventh or something.”
This particular German claimed he is never motivated by schadenfreude. “I have never wanted to win a football match because the other team loses,” he said. “I only want to win.” Such is the nature of the United-Liverpool rivalry that few others would share that view.
In any case, Klopp has other concerns. Alisson should be fit to return after two months on the sidelines. It offers an encouraging parallel for United, potentially without De Gea, that they did not drop a point with their reserve goalkeeper, Adrian.
Sergio Romero, the Spaniard’s deputy, is arguably the best second-choice keeper in the country. Joel Matip is another whose participation has been in doubt. His significance is such that he outshone his partner, Virgil van Dijk, to be named the PFA Player of the Month for September.
Mohamed Salah is the third doubt: hurt by a reprehensible challenge by Leicester’s Hamza Choudhury two weeks ago, the Egyptian has never scored against United. He could nevertheless be pivotal, and not only because his potential duel with Harry Maguire has been billed “when Harry met Salah”.
There is a managerial meeting, too, and for all his travails as United’s last 17 games have only produced as many points, Solskjaer has a better record than Klopp did after 29 league matches. But the Norwegian has promoted youth and the German always took a long-term view. He said in his first press conference that he thought he would win a trophy in his first four years, and if not his first silverware may have to come in Switzerland.
“That was my first misjudgement,” said a manager who ended his wait in the Champions League. “I think if we'd have lost the final I still would be here.”
For most around Anfield, the next target would be the Premier League title. Klopp demurred as he considered the competition.
“At that time, I didn't really think about it [the answer] and today I have no idea,” he said. “Our situation is different. The situation in general is different. There are so many good teams now. We are good, obviously. Thank God, if not then that would be a big problem.
“City are really, really good. In the moment they are young enough to stay on track. Chelsea, when you see the group they have, and with transfers on top if they want to do it next year, there's a big potential there.
"Arsenal look like, when you see their ‘B’ team playing in Europe, you think 'wow'. There's so much happening. I have no clue what is going to happen in the future. The only thing I have to make sure is we are always ready for the next step.”