John Aldridge: 'If Manchester United lose tonight, Liverpool will pick up 97 points and still miss out on the title'
Read John Aldridge every week in The Herald
I never thought I’d say this for as long as I had breath in my lungs but for one night only, I’m a Manchester United fan. I say that because if Manchester City win the derby against United at Old Trafford tonight, the Premier League title race will be all but over.
All Liverpool fans are hoping this is the game that will see City drop their first points since they lost 2-1 to Newcastle on January 29th, but it’s hard to see how United can drag themselves off the canvas after their 4-0 hammering against Everton on Sunday.
That result means United probably need to beat either City tonight or Chelsea on Sunday to keep their hopes of a top-four finish alive, so you would hope that they are up for the battle in a game that means so much to their fans.
Yet I looked at the performances of United’s star names at Goodison Park three days ago and it reminded us what they are all about; a set of players who turn their talent tap on and off when it suits them.
United’s defence is third rate and while they have some decent attacking players who could trouble City, it is hard to believe they will be capable of stopping Guardiola’s side if they are on top form.
I also question whether their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has the tactical nous to come up with a game plan that will give his side a chance to emerge from this game with anything other than another heavy beating.
He got United back on track to a point after replacing Jose Mourinho in December and the winning run he went on got him the job on a permanent basis, but he is not proven at the highest level of the game and nights like this will test him out.
Okay, so he oversaw their comeback win against Paris Saint-Germain in the last-16 of the Champions League, but they were aided by a late VAR decision in that game and may have got carried away by their progress as they handed him a long-term contract as manager.
What we have seen over the last few weeks has reminded us all that Solskjaer was merely papering over the cracks in this team, with their performance at Everton last weekend embarrassing on several levels.
Some of their players were in second gear as they were hammered at Goodison Park and Solskjaer was very honest in his assessment of his players after the game, as he questioned whether they had the strength of character to play for Manchester United.
Those comments were clearly designed to get a reaction from his dressing room and we will find out whether they are ready to respond or whether they are, as many people have suggested, not up to the job of playing for what is a massive club.
Liverpool have to hope that Solskjaer’s public criticism of his players and the stinging media coverage of their latest display will draw a response from United, with the nerves Manchester City showed in their tense 1-0 win against Tottenham on Saturday another reason for hope if you are in Jurgen Klopp’s dressing room.
One sub-plot to this evening’s game that can be put to bed has to be the notion that some United players would rather lose against City if it means Liverpool fail to win the Premier League title.
Some United fans might be thinking that way and the comments I’ve seen on social media in recent days suggests a section of the United faithful are thinking like that, but Solskjaer and his players will only be thinking about qualifying for next season’s Champions League and they probably don’t care what happens to Liverpool.
Football fans often have a very different agenda when compared to players and managers and if any United player thinks he’ll throw in a mistake or two to ensure Liverpool don’t end this season as champions, he should be fired out of the Old Trafford door in a hurry.
If you were a United fan all your life and happened to be playing for them now, you might think it would be better to stop Liverpool winning the title, but the vast majority of Solskjaer’s team were not even born in England and won’t be engrossed in the enduring rivalry between the two clubs down the years.
So it all comes down to this. Nine months of toil and an incredible effort from Liverpool to stay with a title rival who have spent £1billion assembling a team that should be dominating the world game by now.
Klopp and his players have done so well to stick with City, but the prospect of Liverpool collecting 97 points and only finishing second in the Premier League is now looking increasingly likely unless Manchester United, of all teams, change the script tonight.