It’s been just over two months since Manchester United and Liverpool met, and a lot has changed in that time.
Then, the title-chasing Merseysiders thumped United 3-1 at Anfield, a game even less competitive than the scoreline suggests.
Liverpool were unbeaten in the Premier League at the time and United were sixth, with a goal difference of zero and a top-four finish, let alone a title challenge, a fading hope.
That game proved to be the final nail in Jose Mourinho’s coffin at United. The Portuguese manager was swiftly sacked and replaced in temporary charge by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Since then, United haven’t lost a league game, have climbed back into the top four and have recorded away victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea – the latter two part of a run to the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Although Liverpool remain top of the table, Jurgen Klopp’s men have lost a little bit of momentum as United’s confidence has grown. They suffered their first Premier League defeat, to Manchester CIty, and were eliminated from the FA Cup by Wolverhampton Wanderers in January. And their last five league fixtures have brought two draws, in addition to a couple of narrow victories that could easily have seen points dropped.
So, whereas two months ago United would have dreaded the prospect of facing Liverpool again, they now enter Sunday’s Old Trafford showdown in buoyant mood, confident of acquitting themselves better this time around.
And no player better embodies United’s transformation under Solskjaer than Marcus Rashford.
The 21-year-old striker, who has spent much of his fledgling career stationed wide or on the bench, is now United’s primary centre-forward and among the hottest strikers in Europe.
The key to victory for either side on Sunday could well come down to who is best able to release their star scorer. Mohamed Salah is once again atop the Premier League scoring chart for the Reds and will be the danger man United must plan to prohibit at Old Trafford.
But, although he trails the Egyptian in terms of overall performance this season, Rashford has proven himself equal to Salah in many ways recently.
Isolating the league games of each club since Solskjaer was appointed United’s caretaker manager, Rashford comes out on top in per-90-minutes averages for goals (0.8 to 0.77), shots (4.94 to 3), open-play expected goals (0.55 to 0.44), expected assists (0.29 to 0.27) and successful take-ons (1.87 to 1.78).
When Rashford burst onto the scene as a fearless 18-year-old in February 2016, the watching world expected the Englishmen to develop into one of the game’s deadliest striker in the coming seasons.
He stagnated somewhat under Mourinho but is now back on track to fulfilling that destiny. Rashford scored twice in an Old Trafford victory over Liverpool last season, and by outperforming Salah at the weekend, he will prove he is worthy of comparison with the very best.
*Odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell