In the reverse of this fixture, neither Jose Reina nor Anders Lindegaard had much of a part to play – and couldn’t be blamed for conceding any of the three goals that were scored. Today might be different though.
United’s time-share exercise between Lindegaard and David De Gea seems to be over, and the Spaniard will start today, but he – like his countryman Reina – is as capable of losing the game for his side as he is winning it for them. These are both confidence keepers, and as such there should always be a question mark against them and their ability to remain error-free throughout ninety minutes. Add up the atmosphere, the natural tension around the game, and the biting cold in Manchester, and this is a tricky afternoon for those two. It’s too simplistic to say that whoever plays better will be on the winning side, but whichever goalkeeper delivers the more confident and assured performance will give the defenders in front of him some extra stability.
Not entirely unrelated to the performance of the goalkeepers, but still worth a separate paragraph.
Liverpool may have kept back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League, but neither QPR nor Sunderland provided particularly stern tests, and that back-four is yet to prove itself against decent opposition. The same is very much true with United: they’ve consistently given their opposition an unearned advantage through lapses of concentration and poor decision-making.
In Liverpool’s case, think about where they would be in the table had they not thrown away leads at Everton or against Manchester City, or had they not surrendered such cheap goals at White Hart Lane or at home to Aston Villa.
The dressing-room mantra today could well be ‘defend securely and wait for the other team to cough-up a mistake’.
United’s right/Liverpool’s left
On form, Antonio Valencia is a match-winner, but he’s far from that at the moment. Last season, and earlier in this one, when the Ecuadorian isolated a full-back in a wide position and ran at him, he was an extremely effective weapon – his pace was hard to defend, his delivery was extremely good. That ability seems to have drained out of his game, and United’s right-hand side is not nearly as potent as it once was. Whatever’s wrong, he needs to fix it and do so today – with Jose Enrique out injured, Liverpool’s defensive left is an obvious weakness which is there to be exploited.
With Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling probably starting in the wide forward positions, expect Stewart Downing to start at left-back today, and that’s really someone who Valencia should be carving-up. Liverpool’s system doesn’t give much protection to their full-backs, and as a result it leaves one-on-one match-ups in wide positions – United need to have the players today who can take advantage of that.