Mour­inho re­turns to An­field in finer form than a year ago

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FOOTBALL -

Jose Mour­inho re­turns to An­field Satur­day with his Manch­ester United team in far finer fet­tle than on their last trip to face Liver­pool 12 months ago.

United had their backs to the wall in Oc­to­ber 2016, suc­ces­sive de­feats against Manch­ester City and Wat­ford hav­ing snuffed out their earl­y­sea­son op­ti­mism, and were con­tent to chisel out a 0-0 draw.

A year on they are soar­ing, six wins and a draw in their open­ing seven Pre­mier League games putting them level on points with lead­ers Man City.

Mour­inho’s men have been sim­i­larly im­pe­ri­ous in the Cham­pi­ons League, scor­ing seven goals in onesided wins over Basel and CSKA Moscow, and av­er­age 3.2 goals per game in all com­pe­ti­tions. Hav­ing been tar­get­ing top spot prior to last sea­son’s equiv­a­lent fix­ture, Liver­pool are now the team on the back foot.

A re­turn of five points from four league out­ings has left them sev­enth in the ta­ble, they have drawn both of their Cham­pi­ons League games to date and were knocked out of the League Cup by Le­ices­ter City.

An in­jury to Sa­dio Mane has robbed man­ager Jur­gen Klopp of a vi­tal at­tack­ing player and both Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino could be low on gas af­ter play­ing for Brazil in mid-week.

Klopp can nev­er­the­less point to an ex­cel­lent record in head-to-head matches against other top-six sides, hav­ing suf­fered only two de­feats in 20 such con­tests since his ar­rival in Oc­to­ber 2015.

The trip to Mersey­side there­fore rep­re­sents United’s first ma­jor test of the cam­paign and they can ex­pect the same fe­ro­cious re­cep­tion that is re­served for them when­ever they cross their archri­vals’ thresh­old.

Mour­inho has plenty of his­tory with the An­field crowd.

Stung by the ‘ghost goal’ by Luis Gar­cia that knocked his Chelsea team out of the Cham­pi­ons League in 2005, he cel­e­brated provoca­tively when Chelsea’s 2-0 win at An­field im­per­illed Liver­pool’s ti­tle bid in 2014.

Mind­ful of the ex­pec­ta­tions his side’s re­cent per­for­mances have gen­er­ated, Mour­inho has at­tempted to play down the sig­nif­i­cance of the match. “It’s three points,” he said. “It hap­pened this sea­son. An op­po­si­tion player told me: ‘This match for us is like a cup fi­nal.’ And I thought: ‘Pfff, why?’

“When you are in a big club, when you are a big player, when you are a big man­ager, ev­ery game is im­por­tant. You can­not look at some matches as cup fi­nals and other matches dif­fer­ently.

“Do I like to go to An­field? Yes, I love it. Do I like to play against Liver­pool? Yes. I like amaz­ing sta­di­ums, the best op­po­nents, but the prepa­ra­tion is not dif­fer­ent. It’s just a match.”

Mane’s ab­sence in­creases the bur­den on Mo­hamed Salah, who failed to make the grade un­der Mour­inho at Chelsea be­fore en­joy­ing a ca­reer re­nais­sance in Italy.

He has scored six goals in his first 11 Liver­pool games and goes into Satur­day’s match af­ter scor­ing the stop­page-time penalty against Congo that ended Egypt’s 28-year wait to qual­ify for a World Cup.

“It’s a big game on Satur­day. Ev­ery­one in the world will watch the game,” Salah told the Liver­pool web­site. “We al­ways fight in each game, but this game is a big game and can make a dif­fer­ence for us. We have to im­prove our place in the ta­ble.”

Mane faces up to six weeks out with a ham­string in­jury sus­tained on in­ter­na­tional duty with Sene­gal and Klopp could also be with­out cen­ter­back De­jan Lovren.

Mour­inho, too, had rea­son to curse the in­ter­na­tional break af­ter Marouane Fellaini dam­aged knee lig­a­ments dur­ing Bel­gium’s 4-3 win over Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina.

With Paul Pogba side­lined and Michael Car­rick hav­ing missed United’s last two games, the vis­i­tors are likely to line up with Ne­manja Matic and An­der Her­rera in mid­field.

Liver­pool will use the oc­ca­sion to of­fi­cially un­veil An­field’s newly named Kenny Dal­glish Stand, which was for­merly known as the Cen­te­nary Stand.

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