LONDON – It remains the fiercest rivalry in English football, but when Liverpool plays Manchester United on Sunday the main interest is how boring or enjoyable the game will be. Not whether we shall see a blood and thunder clash or two managers who do not like each other (notably Rafa Benitez and Alex Ferguson) locking horns. Not even the result.
The match at Anfield will probably prompt someone, somewhere to have a Snoozeometer — or maybe a calculator.
Nobody is sure which Liverpool or United will be on display. The one which has struggled to score and excite supporters or the one which shocked the nation by being part of six-goal spectacles.
Both clubs were involved in 3-3 thrillers in midweek, United drawing at Newcastle and Liverpool scoring a last-minute equalizer at home to Arsenal.
The defending may have been poor, but the entertainment level was high — the trouble is these games were exceptions for clubs whose football has been more drab than dynamic.
The unexpected outbreak of goals was out of character for Liverpool, which has specialized in 1-0 wins, and United, which has had six 0-0 draws in its last 17 matches.
Conceding or scoring three goals has been a rarity for these fallen giants, but to do both in single games within 24 hours saw one newspaper print 3-3 — yes 3-3.
United has, with a few exceptions, become synonymous with boring football this season. Louis van Gaal remains in his job, to the frustration of most United supporters who have been drip-fed a diet of mediocrity even if the Red Devils are just two points off a Champions League place.
The Glazers appear willing, if not necessarily happy, to keep Van Gaal — for this season, at least — and the media has virtually given up writing that United must win its next game or the Dutchman will go. Yet the feeling remains one or two bad results, and losing to Liverpool is as bad as it gets for United, will turn up the pressure on Van Gaal, whose relationship with the press has, inevitably, deteriorated.
Liverpool has escaped the criticism fired at United because Juergen Klopp has been in charge for only a few months, though with 25 goals scored in its 21 Premier League games (United has scored 27) it has rarely raised the pulse. Klopp has won five of his 13 league games, including four draws. Liverpool has scored only 17 goals in that time, five in the last five.
The spectacle provided by Liverpool’s goal fest with Arsenal will not have fooled Klopp into thinking he has the players to push on. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, incredibly offered a new five-year deal, does not inspire confidence with either his shot-stopping or command of his area.
Roberto Firmino twice gave Liverpool the lead — the Brazilian’s first Anfield goals since his £29 million transfer from Hoffenheim last summer. It was by far Firmino’s best display for the club though he needs to reach this level away to lesser opposition rather than just on the bigger stage.
Adam Lallana’s work-rate cannot be faulted, but the midfielder must deliver inspiration rather than just perspiration. Christian Benteke cost £32.5 million from Aston Villa six months ago yet Klopp keeps him on the substitutes’ bench despite a shortage of attacking options.
The German is loved by the Liverpool fans for his personality, energy, commitment to the cause and the way he is slowing giving the club an identity.
Klopp’s first taste of a Liverpool-United clash will be a chance for the ex-Borussia Dortmund coach to renew acquaintances with van Gaal, the former Bayern Munich coach who he faced in four editions of Der Klassiker, winning two and losing two.
Recent history favors United. In the last 12 years, Liverpool has just six wins over its rival. Eighteen of the past 27 meetings have been won by the Manchester side, including September’s 3-1 win at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal will probably set United up to contain Liverpool with Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and maybe Daley Blind in midfield. Klopp will hope the pace of Emre Can, Jordon Ibe and Firmino can penetrate United’s normally reliable defense.
Just don’t expect another 3-3 scoreline.
Incredible run continues: Leicester City continues to astound to the extent we should not still be surprised by results like its 1-0 win at Tottenham on Wednesday night.
Manager Claudio Ranieri laughed when it was put to him Leicester could win the title. “It’s January,” he said. “If it was May, perhaps. If you ask me what I think about being champions, I say ‘I love you.’
“At the start [of the season] I wanted 40 points. We did that. Now I want 40 points in the second half of the season. People ask what Leicester can do. I don’t know. We are very solid, there is a good atmosphere, we just want to keep going and improve.”
The Foxes have 43 points, the same as leader Arsenal, and with basement club Aston Villa Saturday’s opposition, Leicester should continue the most unexpected title chase in the history of the Premier League.
The belief has been that when teams play Leicester for a second time in the league they will have worked it out.
Ranieri has set up his team to play in a way that perfectly complements the skills of his two most outstanding players, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, whose speed on the counterattack is something opponents have failed to deal with. It remains to be seen if the pair can be stopped or even slowed down.
Leicester has been fortunate with injuries and Ranieri has had to make few changes to his Premier League side. Kasper Schmeichel is established as first-choice goalkeeper; Danny Simpson is the right-back, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are man-mountains in the center of defense with Christian Fuchs at left-back. N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater provide the midfield shield; Mahrez and Marc Albrighton give pace and trickery on the wings with Japan’s Shinji Okazaki a growing influence alongside Vardy up front.
Okazaki’s aerial ability is often underrated. Despite being only 172 cm, the timing of his jumping means Okazaki wins crucial flick-ons for Vardy to run on to.
It may still be difficult to see Leicester as champions of England, but it is certainly going the right way about it.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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