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This fine but flawed United side can win the title - but I don't expect them to do it

Jamie Carragher



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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Peter Powell/PA Wire

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Peter Powell/PA Wire

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Peter Powell/PA Wire

The Manchester United side heading to Anfield tomorrow remind me of Liverpool.

Not Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool. They remind me of the Liverpool teams that came close to winning the title under Roy Evans in 1997, and the one which narrowly missed out under Brendan Rodgers in 2014.

Their points tally at this stage of the season is similar. Evans' side were top with 38 points after 18 games. After 17 games, Rodgers' Liverpool led with 36 points, identical to United today.

The mood at Anfield during those times might resonate with United supporters now, particularly since the win over Burnley which took them top of the Premier League on Tuesday.

Whenever there was a flicker of hope on Merseyside throughout the 1990s and 2000s, cautious excitement at an encouraging start was balanced by realism that the hard work was to come. Supporters were itching to believe, but were reluctant to do so prematurely. Even when they were leading at the halfway stage of the season, no one truly thought they would become champions.

The aforementioned Liverpool teams were occasionally thrilling, but generally flawed. And when the moment of truth came, they could not be trusted. There was an expectation an imbalance between attack and defence and lack of overall quality would eventually catch up with them. When it ended in disappointment, it was the hope that made it harder to take.

The comparison being made is not meant as criticism. Although we remember how the 1997 and 2014 seasons ended, with Manchester United and Manchester City respective champions, the fact is that in both years Liverpool could have won it. Given the position they were in with three games to go in 2014, many will argue they should have.

My observation relates to where I still see United compared with Manchester City and Liverpool, who I consider stronger. That is hardly a contentious opinion. I can tell that United fans are wary of making the mistake of declaring their team ready to become champions too soon, despite their strong position.

I have already stated my belief that United can win the league this season. My broader point is they still have some convincing to do. Winning at Anfield would be the most persuasive argument, yet that it is the start of a prolonged era of consistency rather than a consequence of freakish circumstances.

Nobody - and I would include Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - thought United would be in this position at this point of the season.

Last season, the gap between United and the champions was 33 points. Rarely do sides emerge from being so far behind to win the title.

There are other similarities with Rodgers' side. Where Liverpool had the talisman Luis Suarez, who was fundamental to their unlikely title bid, United have Bruno Fernandes. As was the case when Liverpool were without Suarez, the drop in performance level when United are without Fernandes is too vast for them to be seen as a high-class team.

Rodgers' side emerged in a peculiar year where United were no longer a force having just lost Alex Ferguson, and Chelsea were back in transition after Jose Mourinho's reappointment. They almost seized a chance which, for that team, never came again.

United have worked themselves into a good position in a unique year due to the pandemic levelling out the top of the Premier League. Manchester City and Liverpool have been unable to match the blistering starts which put one or both of them out of sight by the halfway stage. In the last three years, after 17 games the leaders had 49 points twice, and 46 points.

Upsurge

There has been no sudden upsurge in quality from the chasing pack. The two best teams just have not been at the standard they were.

So despite it being a full calendar year since United lost a Premier League away game - coincidentally at Anfield on the same weekend in 2020 - the jury is still out, especially after their early Champions League exit. United are yet to beat any of the usual 'top six' rivals in this campaign, Liverpool the last they will meet after defeats by Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, and draws with Chelsea and Manchester City. The recent loss to City in the Carabao Cup semi-final looked like a reality check.

Even diehard United fans will admit they do not know exactly what they are seeing yet.

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These remarks are not intended to puncture the increasing optimism at Old Trafford. There is much to justify it, and it may prove over the next five months that United have indeed laid the foundation for their 21st title.

United have the firepower to turn games in their favour, even when they are not at their best, and recent wins such as those against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa and Burnley, had the hallmarks of title winning campaigns, with a side finding a way across the line in tricky circumstances, or with late goals. That is a quality Klopp's side often demonstrated last year, and needs to reconnect with away from home after recent performances against Newcastle and Southampton.


From Liverpool's perspective, the challenge from United should be seen as an opportunity as much as a threat.

For the past three years, the Premier League has been won by swashbucklers. This year, it will be won by grinders. We know Liverpool can win the title with a swagger. If they eke out a title, it will raise their status higher.

So while United fans may look to Anfield and feed their belief about what might be achieved this season, Liverpool's should find inspiration from Old Trafford.

Liverpool are at a point in their development under Klopp where there is much to be learned from the manner in which Alex Ferguson turned the end of a three-decade wait for a title into an extended period of title success.

When the honours board is read and supporters see Ferguson's 13 league titles, few remember how gruelling many of those campaigns were. Our memories play tricks and we like to think of his all-conquering side as stampeding over every challenger. That is not how it was.

Not all his titles were won by hitting the front early and striding away from the pack. They often required overcoming adversity, making adjustments after long-term injuries or suspensions to key players, and fighting off of an emerging opponent.

Despite recent setbacks, Klopp's side remains well placed to defend the title. They are still the team to beat. United understand that better than anyone. That's why every meeting between the clubs - no matter what their positions - carries so much meaning.

There were many occasions during my Anfield career when Liverpool played United trying to prove we were getting as close as a tight mid-season league table suggested. Now the roles are reversed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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