Vic­tory is in the air for United

The New Paper - - SPORTS -

Mourinho’s big boys head and shoul­ders over wob­bly Reds

tion has at least pulled fo­cus away from Liver­pool’s un­der­ly­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

De­jan Lovren and Joel Matip prom­ise an­other evening of con­fu­sion where there should be co­he­sion. It’s a de­fen­sive part­ner­ship of such in­de­ci­sion and un­cer­tainty that Mourinho may not even bother with the bus.

The Por­tuguese loves to ir­ri­tate ri­vals by ex­plain­ing how easy it is for him to achieve cer­tain score­lines or avoid de­feat.

When United went to An­feld last sea­son, Mourinho got what he came for: a point in a truly wretched 0-0 draw.

To Klopp’s deep frus­tra­tion, he nul­li­fied Liver­pool’s most po­tent area — cen­tral mid­field — by sim­ply by­pass­ing it.

United negated the Reds’ press­ing game by play­ing over the top of it.

David de Gea, so com­fort­able in pos­ses­sion, never once played a short ball at An­field last sea­son. He went long. Ev­ery United foot­baller went long.

Some man­agers rely on long­ball foot­ball as a route to goal. Mourinho used long-ball foot­ball to keep Liver­pool’s coun­ter­pressers away from his goal. And it worked.

Pumped balls fell from the heav­ens and dropped on a body part be­long­ing to ei­ther Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic or Mar­cus Rash­ford.

Of those two for­wards, Mourinho has only Rash­ford to call upon tonight, but he also has Lukaku and Matic, two mus­cu­lar mon­sters with no equal in the Liver­pool line-up.

Mourinho also has a stronger, set­tled, es­tab­lished squad as United in­creas­ingly ben­e­fit from the sec­ond-sea­son syn­drome that pos­i­tively took hold on his pre­vi­ous clubs.

The Red Devils have scored 21 goals, con­ceded just two and face a raggedy Reds side who haven’t beaten United in the EPL in six pre­vi­ous at­tempts.

Most im­por­tantly, United boast a striker look­ing for his eighth goal in as many games.

Lukaku lacks Ibrahi­movic’s fi­nesse and per­haps even Rash­ford’s speed, but he’s blessed with a crude power that ri­vals both men.

How­ever, the Bel­gian’s out­stand­ing form re­tains a stub­born caveat, that he makes a mess of min­nows but sel­dom de­liv­ers on the main stage.

Liver­pool cer­tainly rep­re­sent United’s big­gest chal­lenge to date, so Lukaku will be look­ing to shake off the shack­les of that price tag in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment.

Long, an­gled balls into the space between Lovren and Al­berto Moreno will give Lukaku a chance to probe Liver­pool’s weak­est spot.

Si­mon Mig­no­let also gives the im­pres­sion that he suf­fers from a touch of acro­pho­bia. The goal­keeper’s fear of heights can be in­fec­tious at set-pieces. Lovren and Moreno are not im­mune to the symp­toms ei­ther.

As a man­ager who rev­els in the fine mar­gins of close con­tests, Mourinho will call upon Lukaku, Matic and ei­ther Smalling or Bailly to stand head and shoul­ders above their mark­ers.

In fact, the eter­nally cau­tious coach doesn’t need to be overly neg­a­tive on this oc­ca­sion. He has the height ad­van­tage. He also has Juan Mata to find the fore­heads of his big­gest bruis­ers.

A high-scor­ing classic cer­tainly isn’t on the cards. Mourinho sim­ply isn’t made that way. But United are more than ca­pa­ble of re­ly­ing on whipped crosses and high balls, rather than parked buses.

Mourinho ad­vo­cates sim­plic­ity in coach­ing and his An­field in­struc­tions couldn’t be sim­pler.

Con­trol the airspace and United will con­trol the game.

npsports@sph.com.sg

PHOTO: AFP

Romelu Lukaku’s aerial prow­ess will pose a stern test for Liver­pool’s por­ous de­fence.

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