It is difficult for any Liverpool fan to ignore the fortunes of Manchester United and even if their decline continues, we'll have to be wary for a few reasons on Sunday. David Moyes' side has three clean sheets in a row but Brendan Rodgers' side has scored at least three goals in their last four Premier League matches. Who were the three Premier League teams that could not breach Manchester United's defence? Arsenal, Crystal Palace, and Arsenal. Liverpool‘s three goal scoring streak secured victory against Arsenal, Fulham, Swansea, and Southampton. The difference is clear but danger is still there.
Danny Welbeck has been productive with nine goals and a single assist in 12 starts and 9 sub appearances. Javier Hernández and Nani can be dangerous on their day with their various attributes but both will be unavailable through injuries. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are in contention to start for but those two remain predictable players whose best seasons are probably behind them.
Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, and David de Gea could prevent Liverpool from securing victory through their fine individual capabilities. Football is a team game but often, crucial moments can win or lose games. Let's take a look at the five key players and some selected stats in the Premier League.
Age: 28 EPL Games: 21(2) Goals: 11 Assists: 10 Shots per game: 3.3
The England international has been around for quite a while and is still only 28 years old. Wayne Rooney is one of the biggest names in the Premier League but many doubt whether his ability matches his lofty reputation. There have been increasingly loud murmurings that both club and country should avoid building their respective sides around the Croxteth man. While his positional flexibility offers benefits, Rooney often abandons his position to search deeper and deeper for the ball when some inspiration is needed from midfield.
Fitness and off-season indiscipline are usually levelled at Rooney to criticise a player that isn't too far from thirty. He's given his club lengthy service (he's pulled some seemingly disloyal stunts that were rewarded with shiny new contracts) but how much longer can Rooney be a force in England and Europe? Rooney has struggled for fitness this season but remains one of two players to score double figures in goals and assists. Average players don't achieve this feat and certainly not season after season as Rooney has done.
He is a player who merits respect on the field no matter whether one thinks he isn't among the very best in world football.
Age: 30 EPL Games: 16(1) Goals: 11 Assists: 3 Shots per game: 3.1
The Netherlands striker is immensely popular among the TLO community for his likeable personality on the pitch and commitment to fair play. Okay, he'll never be considered as nice and magnanimous as Gianfranco Zola but he is a player whose combination of technique, movement, and finishing would translate successfully to any of Europe's big five leagues. He may not be happy but he's got what it takes to put Liverpool's charge on brakes.
This season has been a return to injury proneness and disappointment with the club's direction. The past two seasons have been van Persie's most productive and avoiding injuries were significant in maintaining consistency. His goalscoring ratio in the league is still impressive in a depressing season for his club and injuries have not blunted a striker who retains the sharpest of edges.
Liverpool's centrebacks must remain alert to van Persie's clever movement while Mignolet may need to add to his stunning shot stopping collection to keep him from adding to his Premier League tally.
Age: 25 EPL Games: 6 Goals: 0 Assists: 3 Pass completion: 90.1%
This was not supposed to happen. Chelsea's best player over the last couple of years was never supposed to leave for a domestic rival unless it was Liverpool. In the event of Liverpool not acquiring the player, Europe's biggest names would be possible destinations for a player whose quality merits regular Champions League football. Before the January transfer opened, regular football was the problem for a player and Manchester United provided the solution.
There are roughly £37 million reasons for David Moyes not to instruct Juan Mata to play wide and cross it. While there appears to be no clear and sensible tactical plan for Mata, he remains a player who can unpick an opposition defence with a flick, a pass, and a bit of clever movement. His presence can still signal sombre tidings for visiting teams and his understanding of that magical space between the opposition midfield and defensive lines remains first-rate.
Mata is a composed and clever customer who can find those pockets of space where he can find teammates in dangerous areas. Fullbacks and defensive midfielders beware.
Age: 19 EPL Games: 12(9) Goals: 3 Assists: 2 Pass completion: 80%
The youngest member of an attacking quartet that could devastate opposition defences is one of the breakout stars of the season. His pass selection and understanding of space are both highly advanced for an attacking player in his late teens. Irritatingly, it would be unsurprising if the English media saw a subplot involving Raheem Sterling "facing off" against Adnan Januzaj in a battle of the precocious youngsters. While Sterling has pledged allegiance to England instead of Jamaica, Januzaj has yet to decide between a myriad of nations. Choose Belgium. Choose a happy international footballing life.
David Moyes should be given credit for the restraint he has shown in recent weeks by resting Januzaj despite fan and media pressure to continue selecting the player. Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia will most likely be selected to start but do not be surprised if Januzaj produces a moment or two of magic to concern Liverpool's defence.
The youngster has performed better than so many of his attacking teammates and frankly, he's simply a superior player to quite a few of them.
Age: 23 Games: 28 Conceded: 31 Clean Sheets: 10 Saves per game: 2.39 Saves per goal: 2.23
This is one goalkeeper who hasn't had much protection from his defenders or midfielders. The young Spanish goalkeeper was groomed by Sir Alex Ferguson to be the Red Devils' dominant goalkeeper for over a decade. In his third season at the club, Manchester United's number one has been one of the few success stories in a time of domestic strife.
A goalkeeper may be a strange choice when compiling the most dangerous opposition players but he could be the immovable force against an irresistible attack. That would be more than dangerous; it would be sickening. That's the threat that de Gea poses and he possesses the skillset to dent Liverpool's hopes. Like Simon Mignolet, the keeper is a world class shot stopper whose saves often appear to be bless by Fowler himself. Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling will need to be accurate to beat one of the best young keepers in world football.
Liverpool will need to be vigilant in defence and clinical in attack because they face a side with some high quality players even if there are those who are being "found out" this season. Attacking wastefulness and defensive negligence will be punished. Manchester United might not be a side that should be feared but they are a side that should be respected even if their attacking play appears prosaic, pedestrian, incoherent, and predictable.