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Mohamed Salah's Manchester United hoodoo could derail Liverpool title challenge

20:07 EAT 23/02/2019
Mohamed Salah Liverpool 2019
The forward has been anonymous in meetings with the Red Devils, but he cannot afford to be once again on Sunday, where the stakes are too high
For all that the immediate ambitions of both teams entirely contrast at the moment, Manchester United against Liverpool retains the gravitas of the Premier League’s defining derby.

Yet, especially at Old Trafford, the results in this rivalry have recently been rather one-sided; Liverpool have won only twice in their last 10 visits, which will imbue Sunday’s clash with weightier significance—the Reds being in a title race for the ages.

They simply cannot afford any slip-ups.

It is therefore imperative for Jurgen Klopp to find certain solutions: for one, to his winless streak at the home of the eternal enemy; and then to the curious inefficiency of star forward Mohamed Salah against the Red Devils.

It is frequently against Manchester United away that the German’s explosive brand of attacking comes unstuck. That said, he has had three visits, and so a small sample size can be pled. It can be expected that a manager of his ability and standing will snap a run like that eventually.

The Salah situation is rather harder to process.

In three meetings, the Egypt international has neither scored nor assisted against United. Home or away. Objectively, he has left no proper footprint on this tie, no evidence as to his involvement in it.

Perhaps the oddity of that fact is to do with the high standards the 26-year-old has set for himself.

To hit the ground running the way he did on his return to England in 2017/2018 was truly remarkable, providing the perfect riposte to the school of thought that he had somehow been a flop in his brief time at Chelsea.

In total, 32 goals last term, and now 17 in this paints a picture of the league’s premier striker as an almost irrepressible force.

The manner in which that force has been contained against this one opponent has therefore taken on an enigmatic quality: it is a stat that is unique to Manchester United, a sort of weird Salah-immunity.

Publicly, he has insisted it does not matter, telling Premier League Productions: “As I’ve said before, for me, the record is not that important.”

Mohamed Salah | 2018-19 Premier League stats

Privately though, he must be aching to see it go away. And, whatever he truly thinks of it, it is important, and especially so in a season when so much is at stake, and in which any slip-up feels terminal in the moment.

Klopp’s stated aim of winning a title inside his first four years at Anfield, for one thing, could hang in the balance, and so could the perception of the job he has done in his time on Merseyside.

This game provides Liverpool the chance to go three points clear of title rivals Manchester City; blow it, and even Tottenham, who are away at Burnley could move within three points of them at the top of the table.

Clearly then, the stakes are high. If recent meetings between United and Liverpool at Old Trafford are anything to go by, then a tight, low-scoring affair can be expected. This places more of an onus on the difference-makers on both sides to step up: the Reds could do with the league’s top scorer finally putting in a performance against this opposition.

There is an interesting theory, one which might offer some encouragement, if not to Liverpool, then certainly to Salah.

In the home dugout on Sunday will be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, not Jose Mourinho. The 45-year-old has fairly revitalized United, turning them swiftly into contenders for a place in the top four. However, he does not have the same sort of mental and tactical hold on Salah that his predecessor seemed to.

Perhaps due to their previous working relationship at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho appeared to completely have the Egyptian in hand at any given time, working out how to minimize the space in which he preferred to work.

That may have, subconsciously, led to a self-defeating complex wherein the harder he tried, the worse he performed under the gaze of his former boss. It melds with the idea of Mourinho as a master of understanding players and getting into their heads, knowing how to push their buttons whether for negative or positive ends.

Thankfully for Salah and Liverpool, that factor is now gone, that spectre exorcised.

Under Solskjaer, United are closer to what they used to be, and therefore less reticent about attacking on their own patch/

This would mean more room for Salah to work in, and there won't be a better, more useful moment for him to break his duck against the Red Devils.