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Theatre of Nightmares: United at Old Trafford the ultimate test of Liverpool's title dream

09:03 GMT 22/02/2019
Jurgen Klopp Trent Alexander-Arnold Liverpool United
Jurgen Klopp's men can go three points clear on Sunday afternoon but the Reds have nearly always struggled at the home of their great rivals

So, who is really top of the Premier League table?

We’ll know by Sunday evening, after Liverpool have completed their 27th Premier League fixture of the season.

This one has loomed on the horizon for weeks now, a trip down the East Lancs to the home of their fiercest rivals. Manchester United, rejuvenated under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, lie in wait for Jurgen Klopp’s side, looking to put a serious dent in the Reds’ title hopes.

It’s always a big game when Liverpool visit Old Trafford, of course, but this one carries an extra significance. “Huge,” said Andy Robertson on Tuesday. Gini Wijnaldum, smiling, said he was “already looking forward to it.”

Season-defining? Not quite, but what happens this weekend could tell us plenty about what is to come between now and May.

Defeat would leave Klopp’s men second, behind Manchester City on goal difference with 11 games to play. Not an impossible job, by any means, but daunting nonetheless.

Having watched Pep Guardiola’s champions step on the gas in recent weeks, to ‘properly’ surrender top spot them would be sizeable blow to the Merseysiders, who could have been seven points clear as recently as three weeks ago.

That’s the worst-case scenario, of course. Win, and Liverpool go three clear, while simultaneously removing, on paper at least, their toughest remaining fixture. How much bluer the sky will look around Anfield if United can be beaten.

A big ask. Klopp has visited Old Trafford three times and has yet to win – though a drawn Europa League game in 2016 took Liverpool through to the quarter-finals – while the Reds’ record shows the scale of the task they face.

Even as the country’s dominant force in the 1980s, trips to United rarely brought success. Liverpool won there just once in that decade, a 1-0 triumph in April 1982, with the rest consisting of narrow losses, 1-1 draws and one Russell Beardsmore-inspired shelling on New Year’s Day 1989.

The 1990s began with John Barnes streaking clear to score in front of the Stretford End, Liverpool winning 2-1. Kenny Dalglish’s side would be crowned champions two months later, their 18th title. United, at that point, were stuck on seven, with Alex Ferguson craving that first trophy from which to build his reign.

We know what has happened since, of course. Liverpool’s nightmarish wait for No.19 goes on, while their Old Trafford struggles have dragged on. Since Barnes’ brace, they have won just five times in 33 visits.

That each of those wins is so memorable tells you something about Liverpool’s decline; Danny Murphy scored a hat-trick of match-winners between 2000 and 2004, Fernando Torres and Andrea Dossena (now there’s a double act for you!) struck in a 4-1 win in 2009, while five years ago Brendan Rodgers’ side ran riot against a United team falling apart at the seams under David Moyes.

“It was their ground, mainly their supporters, but it was our ball,” Rodgers beamed after a win which took Liverpool second in the table.

His team, led by Steven Gerrard and inspired by Luis Suarez, ultimately fell short in the title race, but it was victory at Old Trafford which confirmed they were even in it to begin with.

Gary Neville has said that winning at Anfield – which United have done a dozen times in the Premier League era – “made you feel you deserved to be champions.”

No matter the gap between the two sides – and it was uncomfortably big at times for Liverpudlians – this will always be a fixture to confirm class and expose flaws.

Think of Premier League champions of the past, and big results at Old Trafford often stand out. Arsenal clinched the title there in 2002 and secured critical results in both 1998 and 2004, City stunned the world with a 6-1 win in 2011 and thrashed Moyes’ side 3-0 in 2014, while Guardiola’s record-breakers won there last season.

Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea, double-winners in 2009/10, had few more significant wins than a Didier Drogba-inspired win at Old Trafford in early April, while Leicester’s incredible triumph of 2016 was all-but-secured by a battling draw with a depleted side.

A result for Liverpool on Sunday would not only take them back to the top of the table, it would put an end to the idea, perpetuated following a pair of recent draws, that this is a team wobbling, a team feeling the pressure of a 'title run-in' which seemed to start in November. Wobbling teams do not win fixtures like this one.

City, who must visit United later in the season, will be banking on a favour from their neighbours this weekend for sure.

Guardiola’s side have a Carabao Cup final against Chelsea to take care of on Sunday, but you can be certain of one thing; those at Wembley will know exactly what is going on at Old Trafford.

It’s a big weekend, in more ways than one.