A lot on the line between Man United and Liverpool this weekend

It always matters when Manchester United and Liverpool clash.

A derby, it is not, but the rivalry between the two clubs, and the two cities, is English soccer’s fiercest. But even by such a standard, this weekend’s meeting at Old Trafford comes with additional importance. There’s even more on the line.

 Sunday’s match could define the season ahead for both United and Liverpool. The hosts come into the match on the back of a nine-match winning run, their best streak of form since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson. Another victory, a 10th straight, over their closest rivals and Jose Mourinho’s side won’t just have propelled themselves into top four contention, but perhaps even into contention at the very top of the table.

As for Liverpool, their season is losing momentum. While Jurgen Klopp’s side had not so long ago built up a head of steam, moving into position as Chelsea’s only genuine challengers for the Premier League top spot, now they have fallen five points off the pace, without a win in their last three matches.

And so Sunday’s affair at Old Trafford is crucial for an altogether different reason. Liverpool has to hold what they have, especially with United looking to bridge the gap between themselves and the Reds (which now stands at just five points). Lose, however, and their place in the top four will be under threat. Such a regression would be particularly disappointing given that their season was shaping up to be a title-challenging one.

This is illustrative of the troughs and peaks experienced over the course of a Premier League season, though. Manchester City started the season by winning 10 straight matches. Sky blue ribbons were already being tied on the trophy. Now, however, Pep Guardiola is facing difficult questions over his methods and ways, with City winning just seven of their 18 fixtures to end the year.

On the flip side, Antonio Conte fielded questions on his future as Chelsea manager following a dismal start to the campaign. Then the Blues shifted tactics and embarked on a 13-game winning run, taking them out of sight at the top of the Premier League table. That run might have ended with defeat to Tottenham last week, but they are still considered strong favourites to win the title.

So this must be taken into consideration before drawing any profound conclusions on the basis of this weekend’s result. A win for United won’t necessarily turn them into title challengers, while a loss for Liverpool wouldn’t end their hopes at the top of the table.

But it is certainly true that this match comes at a critical juncture for both teams. A tone for the rest of the campaign could be set, and Mourinho would appear to have the upper hand on his German counterpart, at least going on the meeting between the two at Anfield earlier in the season.

Back then Liverpool had all the momentum, with United floundering. But Mourinho still found a way to keep Liverpool at arm’s length, claiming a point that at the time felt more like a victory for the struggling Red Devils. They didn’t put on the most exhilarating of performances—in fact, it was decidedly dull—but it will provide something of a mental block for Liverpool as they visit Old Trafford for the return fixture.

Apart from anything else, Manchester United are a much better side now than they were when they faced Liverpool back in October. Mourinho has settled on a starting lineup, with relationships between players sparking up all over the pitch. Paul Pogba is finally delivering, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic rediscovering his scoring touch. Even from a defensive perspective, they look more solid, with Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo building the most unlikely of understandings.

Injuries have hit Liverpool hard, with the absence of both Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson robbing them of drive and creativity, but as the 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year’s Eve showed, Klopp’s side are still capable of pulling out a result when the occasion calls for it. And Sunday, given what is at stake for both clubs, will be quite the occasion.

Article Written by Graham Ruthven of Sportsnet