It’s not uncommon for the Premier League fixtures to put the two Manchester clubs up against the two top flight clubs from Liverpool during the same round of fixtures, but this weekend’s games are particularly intriguing due to the four sides being separated by just a point at the top of the table.
Liverpool currently lead the way on 14 points, with Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Everton and Brighton each taking 13 points from an opening six games. While there is no surprise in the position of the league’s main title contenders, the results of Everton have caught more attention, particularly after the appointment of Rafa Benitez – a manager for whom a good start was important to win over any fans who remained unhappy about the club appointing a man with such strong links to Liverpool FC.
Although yet to be tested by the top clubs, Everton have enjoyed an impressive start, and matched their highest points tally after six matches under the current system of three points for a win.
The Blues go into the match at Old Trafford level on points with Man United, and although it was almost unheard of for the two teams to be so closely positioned in the table during Sir Alex Ferguson’s time as Man United manager, this is the sixth occasion since 2013 in which Everton’s first meeting of the season against Man United has offered them the chance of being ahead in the table by the end of the match.
The prospect of only a second win at the home of Man United in more than 29 years is certainly possible this season, and an away victory would give Rafa Benitez the unique achievement of having won at Old Trafford in the Premier League with three different clubs.
Not that it will be an easy task, for Man United will be keen to put some disappointing results and performances behind them and build on a dramatic Champions League win against Villarreal that for a large part of the match seemed unlikely.
It was a crucial result after losses against Young Boys, West Ham and Aston Villa, and a further demonstration that United are capable of winning games despite not being at their best – a quality that was displayed numerous times last season, particularly away from home.
Solskjaer’s team have everything needed to challenge for the title but, with games to come against Leicester, Spurs, Liverpool and Man City over the next few weeks, cannot afford to start falling behind their rivals so early in the season.
On Sunday, the spotlight will be on the top two with Liverpool hosting Man City.
When the teams at Anfield at a similar stage of the 2018/19 season, it was anticipated to be a pivotal match in the championship race. Few predicted it would be 0-0, but the match illustrated how closely matched the teams had become with Liverpool aiming to build on their status as European champions by providing City with a genuine rival in the defence of their Premier League crown.
That Man City went on to win the title by a point, helped in no small part by a narrow win when the teams met later in the season, gave some justification to the idea that the result of a single game so early in the season could end up being the difference between first and second.
With Chelsea and Man United also promising to compete this season, the dropping of home points in matches against close rivals could be the difference between finishing top, or ending the season in fourth place.
And following a 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea already, Liverpool will be under a little more pressure to take the points, and the team’s form this season will probably see them as marginal favourites for the win.
Mo Salah has been at his very best, and the goal tallies of Mane, Jota and Firmino will give some encouragement that he won’t be under as much pressure as last season, when Jota was alone in sharing the goalscoring burden with Salah.
Man City’s own pursuit of a goalscorer in the summer focussed on bringing Harry Kane to the club, with the player ultimately remaining at Spurs after the clubs failed to agree a transfer fee.
But although City have hardly struggled to find the net this season, there have already been a number of instances in which a clinical finisher would have helped win games that have instead been drawn or lost. Whether in the defeat to Spurs, the home draw against Southampton or the midweek loss to Paris Saint-Germain, there has been a theme of Man City spending a lot of time attacking, but without managing to put the ball in the net.
The situation is nothing new for Pep Guardiola, and was a factor which proved costly for his team during the season in which Liverpool finished as Champions. But it could become a big problem for City again if there are too many more occurrences of failing to win games that they have dominated.
At the other end of the pitch, the defence has been as solid as ever, and with the same generally having been true of Liverpool this season thanks to the return of the club’s first choice defenders, Sunday’s match promises to be a high quality encounter between two of the best teams in football.