LONDON: Jose Mourinho returns to Anfield on Saturday with his Manchester United team in far finer fettle than on their last trip to face Liverpool 12 months ago.
United had their backs to the wall in October 2016, successive defeats against Manchester City and Watford having snuffed out their early-season optimism, and were content to chisel out a 0-0 draw.
A year on they are soaring, six wins and a draw in their opening seven Premier League games putting them level on points with leaders Manchester City.
Mourinho’s men have been similarly imperious in the Champions League, scoring seven goals in one-sided wins over Basel and CSKA Moscow, and averaging 3.2 goals per game in all competitions.
Having been targeting top spot prior to last season’s equivalent fixture, Liverpool are now the team on the back foot.
A return of five points from four league outings has left them seventh in the table, they have drawn both of their Champions League games to date and were knocked out of the League Cup by Leicester City.
An injury to Sadio Mane has robbed manager Jurgen Klopp of a vital attacking player and both Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino could be low on gas after playing for Brazil in mid-week.
Klopp can nevertheless point to an excellent record in head-to-head matches against other top-six sides, having suffered only two defeats in 20 such contests since his arrival in October 2015.
The trip to Merseyside therefore represents United’s first major test of the campaign and they can expect the same ferocious reception that is reserved for them whenever they cross their arch rivals’ threshold.
Mourinho has plenty of history with the Anfield crowd.
Stung by the ‘ghost goal’ by Luis Garcia that knocked his Chelsea team out of the Champions League in 2005, he celebrated provocatively when Chelsea’s 2-0 win at Anfield imperilled Liverpool’s title bid in 2014.
Mindful of the expectations his side’s recent performances have generated, Mourinho has attempted to play down the significance of the match.
“It’s three points,” he said. “It happened this season. An opposition player told me: ‘This match for us is like a cup final.’ And I thought: ‘Pfff, why?’ When you are in a big club, when you are a big player, when you are a big manager, every game is important. You cannot look at some matches as cup finals and other matches differently. Do I like to go to Anfield? Yes, I love it. Do I like to play against Liverpool? Yes. I like amazing stadiums, the best opponents, but the preparation is not different. It’s just a match.”
Mane’s absence increases the burden on Mohamed Salah, who failed to make the grade under Mourinho at Chelsea before enjoying a career renaissance in Italy.
He has scored six goals in his first 11 Liverpool games and goes into Saturday’s match after scoring the stoppage-time penalty against Congo that ended Egypt’s 28-year wait to qualify for a World Cup.
“It’s a big game on Saturday. Everyone in the world will watch the game,” Salah told the Liverpool website. “We always fight in each game, but this game is a big game and can make a difference for us. We have to improve our place in the table.”
Mane faces up to six weeks out with a hamstring injury sustained on international duty with Senegal and Klopp could also be without centre-back Dejan Lovren.
Mourinho, too, had reason to curse the international break after Marouane Fellaini damaged knee ligaments during Belgium’s 4-3 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
With Paul Pogba also sidelined and Michael Carrick having missed United’s last two games, the visitors are likely to line up with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera in central midfield.
Liverpool will use the occasion to officially unveil Anfield’s newly named Kenny Dalglish Stand, which was formerly known as the Centenary Stand.