Men in the mid­dle hold key for Jose

Manchester Evening News - - SPORT - By SAMUEL LUCK­HURST samuel.luck­ @samuel­luck­hurst

ON the 11 oc­ca­sions Jose Mour­inho has taken a team to An­field he has started with three cen­tral mid­field­ers in 10 of them. The ex­cep­tion was a month be­fore his first Chelsea dis­missal, when Claude Makelele was an in­con­gru­ous pres­ence on the bench and Michael Essien started at right-back. The ex­per­i­ment was so un­suc­cess­ful Mour­inho made a half-time sub­sti­tu­tion.

Mour­inho took Chelsea to Liver­pool an ex­haust­ing seven times in just over three years and com­peted against Rafael Ben­itez so of­ten they faced each other at Champions League group stage level. Ben­itez dumped Mour­inho out of the semi­fi­nals on two oc­ca­sions but the Por­tuguese in­flicted one of the most devastating de­feats on Liver­pool soil in decades with a for­mi­da­ble 4-1 win in 2005.

Makelele’s de­mo­tion in 2007 was so sur­pris­ing since he had lined up at An­field when­ever he was fit. Frank Lam­pard started all seven of those afore­men­tioned tus­sles and Michael Essien was a main­stay, al­though some­times at right-back. Ti­ago Men­des and John Obi Mikel were oc­ca­sion­ally drafted in. Ne­manja Matic was es­sen­tial for Mour­inho in shield­ing the Kop goal as Steven Ger­rard en­deav­oured to atone for his slip in 2014. Matic al­ways made the cut for Chelsea un­der Mour­inho, Guus Hid­dink and An­to­nio Conte at Liver­pool and he has not lost there in five.

Matic is as­sured of start­ing for Manchester United on Saturday and An­der Her­rera is also ex­pected to be re­called after Marouane Fel­laini suc­cumbed to in­jury. The week­end fix­ture might mark a de­par­ture from Mour­inho’s fa­mil­iar An­field set-up be­cause of the un­avail­abil­ity of Fel­laini and Pogba but also the al­ter­na­tive.

It is un­clear whether Michael Car­rick is fit again after he missed the CSKA Moscow and Crys­tal Palace wins. Car­rick has not started a Pre­mier League match since May and his only out­ing this term was the Carabao Cup stroll against Bur­ton Al­bion.

Matic’s An­field record is aus­pi­cious whereas Car­rick’s is not. The 36-year-old has played at least 45 min­utes eight times at An­field and United have won only two of them (2-1s in Septem­ber 2012 and March 2015). Over that four-year pe­riod when United man­aged one win in six at Liver­pool Car­rick’s light­weight part­ner­ship was Sc­holes was tan­ta­mount to wav­ing the white flag. They were hounded by yard dog Lu­cas Leiva.

More re­cently, Car­rick lasted 45 min­utes after he was swamped by Liver­pool’s live wires at Old Traf­ford in Jan­uary be­fore Mour­inho hooked him.

There is lit­tle in­cen­tive to re­call Car­rick to the team this week­end, par­tic­u­larly when United are such a tac­ti­cally flex­i­ble side. They have played in three dif­fer­ent for­ma­tions away from home al­ready. Mour­inho has spoken about ‘de­fend­ers that can come into the mid­field, bringing the ball,’ while re­fer­ring to Vic­tor Lin­de­lof and maybe the big­gest selec­tion co­nun­drum is who the third cen­tral de­fender will be at Liver­pool.

Pro­vided Phil Jones re­cov­ers, he and Eric Bailly are cer­tain starters. Chris Smalling, a veteran of An­field en­coun­ters, would be the log­i­cal sup­ple­ment but, as Mour­inho in­formed him be­fore the Europa League fi­nal, ‘With your feet, we’re for sure not play­ing out from the back!’

The gap­ing caveat is Lin­de­lof, who clum­sily con­ceded a penalty in the Nether­lands on Tues­day night, and has still not played a sin­gle Pre­mier League minute. United’s last league de­fen­sive debu­tants at An­field were Mikael Sil­vestre and Mas­simo Taibi in 1999. United have al­ter­na­tives. Bailly is an un­der­rated dis­trib­u­tor whose con­sid­er­able steel of­ten over­shad­ows his silk and Jones’ pass­ing has no­tice­ably im­proved this sea­son to the ex­tent his ac­cu­racy cur­rently stands at 94 per cent. Liver­pool are with­out their totemic Sa­dio Mane, which is enough of an in­cen­tive for Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan and An­to­nio Va­len­cia and An­thony Mar­tial and Ash­ley Young to gang up on their flaky full­backs. Per­haps for the first time since 4-4-2 was in vogue, United might not need a third mid­fielder at An­field.

The week­end fix­ture might mark a de­par­ture from Mour­inho’s fa­mil­iar An­field set-up

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