MANCHESTER, England (AP) — One of English soccer’s biggest rivalries resumes at Anfield on Sunday with the tables turned.
Last season, it was Liverpool in pursuit of a quadruple of trophies. This year, it is a Manchester United team rejuvenated by manager Erik ten Hag that has a chance to win four titles.
If United can navigate its way around arguably its most difficult remaining test in the Premier League, a serious title challenge could be possible.
Having already played leading pair Arsenal and Manchester City home and away this season, a trip to Anfield represents the last major test of United’s credentials, even after Liverpool’s recent struggles for consistency.
A Liverpool team that has already beaten City and Italian league leader Napoli at home this season could threaten Ten Hag’s ambitions. The Merseyside club would relish the opportunity to derail United’s momentum as well as boost their own push for a Champions League qualifying spot.
As impressive as United’s transformation has been under its Dutch manager, the team has yet to secure a win against one of its major rivals away from Old Trafford. That makes the visit to Anfield potentially even more instructive regarding the 20-time league champions’ progress.
The 2-2 draw at Barcelona in the Europa League playoffs last month was evidence of the growing confidence and courage of a team that has been unable to keep pace with City and Liverpool in recent years. And while United went on to win the second leg 2-1 and advance to the round of 16, it is still waiting for that significant victory at the home of a leading club this season.
Ten Hag was humbled in his first Manchester derby in October when losing to City 6-3. At Arsenal in January, United missed the chance to put real pressure on the leaders with a 3-2 loss, curtesy of Eddie Nketiah’s winner in stoppage time. It took an injury-time goal from Casemiro to salvage a 1-1 draw at Chelsea earlier in the season.
United’s all-around improvement, however, has been undeniable, with Wednesday’s come-from-behind 3-1 win over West Ham in the FA Cup the latest example of the team’s resilience.
“We showed we have the character to deal with difficult situations. The team can keep going with energy,” Ten Hag said. “They believe they can win games and once again they did it and I’m happy with that process. This team does not show panic and can change the dynamic of the game.”
Those qualities will be put to the test by a Liverpool team that has dominated this matchup in recent years, winning 5-0 and 4-0 last season.
United’s 2-1 win in August was the first time it had beaten Liverpool in the league since 2018.
If United can pick up three points, however, the season’s run-in will look relatively smooth, while Arsenal and City still have to play each other again and both face Liverpool as well.
Arsenal’s 4-0 rout of Everton on Wednesday opened up an 11-point gap on third-place United, who have a game in hand.
The only other standout away games for United are at Newcastle and Tottenham, though neither compares to the tension that accompanies a trip to Anfield.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has his own ambitions beyond disrupting the title contenders, despite a season of struggle. The 2-0 win over Wolverhampton on Wednesday moved Liverpool within six points of fourth-place Tottenham.
There have been signs of the 2020 champions rediscovering their form in recent weeks with morale-boosting wins against Everton and Newcastle. The latest, against Wolverhampton, provided hope that Klopp can still salvage the season by at least qualifying for the Champions League.
The German coach described it as the “best possible way” to prepare for United.
“I think Man United is the team in form in the moment, maybe together with Arsenal — and City are doing well,” Klopp said, adding that the home crowd could be a factor. “I thought Anfield proved a point tonight again. It was super, super-enjoyable. It felt like a proper unit. We were all together — I loved that. That’s what we need again on Sunday.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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