Come close of leisure business on Sunday evening, we shall have a pretty good indication as to whether we shall be playing Champions League football next season.
With just 9 games left of the season, chances are there will be no more than three points between ourselves and Sunday's opponents Liverpool when the final league table is revealed in the penultimate weekend of May. Liverpool are the form team in the league and will therefore gather enough points to be up there whilst United, well, have spent quite a huge chunk of the season in the top 4 despite all their problems. It goes without saying therefore that the points on Sunday will be humongously vital in answering the most important question left in this season's league.
United showed a lot of their old selves last week in what was a pretty must win encounter against Spurs, and in doing so, knocked out one rival from the rat race. The fixture list between now and May presents United with an opportunity to do the same to every one of their top 4 rivals. The catch though is that United will be going into every one of these games as underdogs unless they can put away Liverpool on Sunday with the directness and verve that witnessed last week.
Brendan Rogers' side play the ultimate 'speed over thought' football in England. The youth in his squad allows him to play a brand of football that blows away opponents that are not up to the task of matching their energy. It is foolish however to put it all down to the style because in keeping 7 straight away clean sheets since we beat them at Old Trafford, the Dippers have exhibited a level of grit and determination to pull through some tricky assignments. It is only in their recent fixture that they dug in so deep to come away with all three points at Swansea. We know all too well, United couldn't muster the same determination to win there a month ago. Whereas Louis van Gaal has struggled to get things flowing with three at the back, Rogers, has found a way to get the best out of his group in a 3-4-3 formation that ironically was enhanced by our manager in 1995 whilst managing Ajax. The question our Dutchman put to himself then was: How can we get to play with the least amount of defenders without leaving ourselves exposed? Contrast that with his substitution last week on Monday in the FA Cup at halftime to replace Ander Herrera with the more defensively assured Michael Carrick when we already had Daley Blind supposedly screening a back four.
Anyhow, suffice it is to say then that the side we easily beat 3-0 at Old Trafford is not the same side we shall be up against on Sunday. For all their strengths however, Liverpool have obvious weaknesses. For starters, the same 3-4-3 formation that has worked wonders for them also leaves them vulnerable to width, much like the 3-5-2 did for us. The difference though is that they are so willing to defend deep and start attacks from their own defence that at times you struggle to keep up with them. Sterling for instance often picks up the ball deep into his own half. That in itself makes it difficult to man mark him because he could easily drag a player out of position.
What one really hopes for is that United avoid being open to the extent that they were last week (yes, despite our perfect performance vs Spurs). Even in the best of times, you know, the glory years under Sir Alex, we've never gone to Anfield open. The first 15-20 minutes will be crucial. Rogers likes them to blow teams away in that opening period, so it is crucial we keep our heads and steady the ship early on...more like withstand the pressure we shall inevitably be under right from kick-off. Indeed, it only took the first 60 seconds for us to lose this fixture last season.
As if the test of the form team in the league is not enough to mull over, our away form also begs of confidence. In fact, it remains to be sen whether United's performance last week as merely a fallout from the fact that we were playing at Old Trafford as opposed to one of those away grounds that has been the source of our misery this term.
For LVG though, the dillemma of what team to start on Sunday might have had his waste paper basket full all week with formations and how to fit in a couple of returning egos into the fold. I mentioned on Monday that the manager has a choice to make in light of Juan Mata's excellent link up play on the right wing with Ander Herrera all in Angel Di Maria's absence. This is where management becomes a thankless task, but also why managers like him are on the end of high incomes. In all honesty, it can only be viewed as a win-lose decision.
If he keeps Juan Mata in the team and United get beaten, questions will be asked as to why he did not trust the club's record signing in our most important game of the season. On the flip side, if he recalls Angel and we lose, the argument will obviously be why he changed the team after United FINALLY seemed to play both to his and the fans' satisfaction last week against formidable opposition.
Of the two scenarios though, chances are that keeping the formula of last week will be less brutally analysed than changing everything all over again. However, I would argue that Rafael must at least have it in himself to do a better job than Valencia at right back. The need to use width to expose Liverpool back three is probably what will give the Ecuadorian the edge over the Brazillian. The other change I would argue for is for Di Maria to replace Fellaini in the side and play centrally ahead of the defensive midfielders. The speed of the game, and the close control of our opponents, much like the in games vs Swansea and Arsenal could put the big Belgian out of the game. Di Maria, however, in a free central role could be priceless on the counter-attack since it is likely to be our default form of attack on Sunday. He also obviously presents a bigger threat to whoever will be marking him than what Fellaini could muster. Mind you. It is not that it is a simple job to mark the big chest lad. It's just that teams have learned that you mark him by going to ground and feigning injury at every challenge for the ball. His reputation with his elbow goes before him. It is such minor details that can constantly frustrate what would be useful attacks.
Ultimately, and perhaps above all else, this is a derby. There's not been many occasions throughout the premier league years in which England's biggest sides are in direct competition for something. Certainly, the 2008/9 season is the last time and only time in premier league memory that United and Liverpool have really been neck and neck for the same thing in the domestic league. The bragging rights therefore are tinged with schadenfreude this time round. You'd imagine that the players will have the heart of fans on the day.
So far this season, the adage is holding firm that United have been most comfortable against top opposition. That will not fill any Red with any amount of confidence given that above all, this is an away fixture, but our two point lead over Liverpool should give us the confidence that whereas two out of three results are good for us, just the one will do for Liverpool, being the home team.
The International break follows fast from this fixture so you can imagine the pain of nursing a derby defeat over a fortnight. Fingers crossed, it will be a fortnight of endless replays of our latest victory at Anfield (with a winner at the Kop end!).