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Heat is on United to prove they are contenders

Burnley match followed by Liverpool showdown will tell us a lot


Contenders: Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (left) and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes battle during the Carabao Cup semi-final match at Old Trafford

Contenders: Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (left) and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes battle during the Carabao Cup semi-final match at Old Trafford

Contenders: Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (left) and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes battle during the Carabao Cup semi-final match at Old Trafford

Manchester United get the chance to leap above Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table tonight and we are about to find out whether they can handle the pressure of challenging for the title.

For the last couple of seasons, Liverpool have been the team to beat and the pressure that goes with everyone shooting at you needed to be absorbed by Jurgen Klopp and his players.

To their credit, Liverpool have handled that status superbly well and despite everything that has been thrown at them this season, with injuries and dodgy VAR decisions, they managed to keep their momentum going up to their last three games.

Yet, after draws against West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle were followed by a 1-0 defeat at Southampton last week, the mood has changed around Liverpool and there is no doubt that this is their biggest hiccup in a couple of years.

They have set their standards so high and have won games at a rate we have rarely seen in the history of the English game, but something is lacking at Liverpool right now and the opposition is sensing that this is their moment to pounce.

I still believe Manchester City are the chief threat to Liverpool in this season's title race, as they are a team that can go on a winning run and pull clear at the top, but United get their chance to confirm they are genuine title contenders when they take on Burnley tonight.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is defying plenty of doubters by pushing United into a decent position in the table, but the mindset will switch if they get the win this evening and take over the lead in the Premier League.

If they come to Anfield next Sunday with a three-point lead over Liverpool, all the pressure will be on Solskjaer and his players to live up to their status as league leaders.

How will they cope with that? The truth is we don't know and they don't know either.

This United side has never been a position at the mid-way point of the season when they have been sitting at the top and everyone is trying to shoot them down.

United have some great attacking players in their side, with Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford two top-class performers who can take the game away from any team on their day.

Yet I look across their team and they have weak spots in several areas, with Manchester City's comprehensive win against them in the Carabao Cup semi-final at Old Trafford last week highlighting United's soft spots at the highest level.

I don't think their defence is good enough to win the Premier League title and I don't like the look of parts of their midfield either.

But this is not a season to make too many bold projections, as logic went out the window a long time ago.

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Whether it is the absence of fans or the Covid madness that is going on all around us, you just don't know what you are going to get from week to week with a lot of teams, including United and Liverpool.

How can a United side that was hammered 6-1 by Tottenham at Old Trafford earlier this season find themselves in a position to go top of the table tonight?

It makes no sense, but nothing makes sense in this world right now and it means we could end up getting a surprising result in the Premier League title race this time.

With the points total required to win the league dropped from the high 90s to less than 85 this season, it brings teams like United and Tottenham into the mix as they could conceivably reach that kind of total.

I'd be surprised if either of those two ends up as champions. We can all see issues in their teams, with one of United's big problems on their touchline as I'm still not convinced Solskjaer is a manager capable of winning big trophies for them.

Yet they could be six points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League by the time I write my column for The Herald next week and if that happens, they would have to be taken seriously as title challengers.

Manchester City will play one of their games in hand against Brighton tomorrow night and I'd expect them to win that pretty comfortably, so things are about to get very interesting at the top of the table.

Maybe this is precisely the kind of competition Liverpool need to get them back up to full speed because Klopp's side has underperformed in their last three Premier League matches.

The champions appeared to have been lacking a bit of drive in their last few games, after winning so much over the last couple of years.

So the challenge being thrown down by Manchester's top two clubs will fire Klopp's side as we head into the second half of the most unpredictable season we have seen in years.