Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho has the tough task of keeping Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah quiet as Jurgen Klopp’s entertainers roll into town at the weekend — with second place in the Premier League the prize on offer.
With Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City virtually assured of the title, northwest rivals United and Liverpool — the two most successful clubs in the English game — are left fighting for the scraps.
United’s impressive fightback from 2-0 down on Monday to beat Crystal Palace 3-2 maintained their slender two-point lead over Liverpool in the battle for the runners-up spot behind runaway leaders City.
Nemanja Matic bailed out Mourinho’s men with a stunning stoppage-time strike in London but another three points papered over the cracks in the latest in a series of unconvincing performances from United.
“We have to be honest, we have to play better,” Matic admitted once the euphoria of his first United goal died down.
“We have to do more if we want to win as Liverpool is a team with great quality.”
The onus will be on Mourinho to take the game to the visitors at Old Trafford on Saturday but the Portuguese manager, criticised for keeping his array of attackers firmly on the leash, is unlikely to risk throwing caution to the wind.
Liverpool had scored 20 goals in their previous seven games before a much-changed side drew 0-0 with Porto in midweek, a result that sealed a place in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in nine years.
With January signing Virgil van Dijk settling in well at the back and Loris Karius impressing in goal, the pieces are falling into place for Klopp’s team, who have lost just once in 20 Premier League games.
But it is their forwards, led by the irrepressible Salah alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, who have scored a combined 68 goals this season, that will give Mourinho sleepless nights.
There was a palpable sensation around Anfield on Tuesday that Liverpool minds were already focused on United, with the free-scoring front three all rested at different spells of the game.
– United v Liverpool ‘special’ –
The match against Liverpool is the first of three games in eight days for United at Old Trafford that will define their season.
Sevilla visit in the last-16 of the Champions League on Tuesday with the tie delicately balanced at 0-0 after the first leg, before in-form Brighton head north for an FA Cup quarter-final.
Mourinho conceded recently “to play Liverpool has a special meaning” for United, so reserving his stars’ energies for midweek is out of the question.
However, he does have a big decision to make over whether to persist with Alexis Sanchez on the left side of United’s attack, with the likes of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in his armoury.
The Chilean has scored just once since moving from Arsenal in January.
Elsewhere, Chelsea need to bounce back from four defeats in five league games if they are to retain any realistic hope of a top-four finish when they host struggling Palace and Tottenham must pick themselves up after being dumped out of the Champions League by Juventus at Bournemouth.
A heavily-rotated City side were also beaten for just the fourth time this season by Basel in Europe in midweek, but still progressed to the quarter-finals and can move to within three wins of mathematically sealing the title when they visit Stoke on Monday.
Arsenal, trailing fourth-placed Spurs by 13 points, look to have blown their hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League but Arsene Wenger will be desperate to reverse an alarming slump when Watford visit the Emirates.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Manchester United v Liverpool (1230 GMT), Newcastle v Southampton, West Brom v Leicester, West Ham v Burnley, Everton v Brighton, Huddersfield v Swansea, Chelsea v Crystal Palace (1730 GMT)
Arsenal v Watford (1330 GMT), Bournemouth v Tottenham (1600 GMT)
Stoke v Manchester City (2000 GMT)