Man Utd ended trophy drought but must now halt Anfield barren run to keep Premier League dream alive

By Sports Desk March 04, 2023

After a few dark years – by their standards – Manchester United appear to be re-entering the light, with last weekend's EFL Cup triumph their first trophy win since 2017.

It may not be the most desired silverware in England, but when a club so accustomed to winning begins to see dust gathering in the trophy cabinet, any tangible representation of success isn't to be sniffed at.

But Erik ten Hag said it best on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday's FA Cup defeat of West Ham: "Get back to work."

Given United's significant improvement under the Dutchman, there's every reason to believe the EFL Cup won't be their only trophy of the season – they're arguably still alive in the Premier League title race, a Europa League last-16 tie with Real Betis awaits, and they will be huge favourites against Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-finals.

The Premier League is the one, however, and if they are to pull off a remarkable turnaround to win it for the first time in 10 years, slip-ups from this point are unthinkable.

A trip to Anfield probably isn't what they want then, is it?

The drought

Granted, the 2022-23 edition of Liverpool is the Reds' poorest in several years, with Jurgen Klopp's side in a real fight for Champions League qualification.

But, for United, there will be something of a psychological barrier to break when they go to Merseyside on Sunday.

United haven't beaten the Reds at Anfield in the Premier League in over seven years, with their last victory there being a 1-0 win in January 2016.

They have suffered three defeats and claimed as many draws at Anfield in that time, making it their longest winless run away to Liverpool in the league since a streak of nine between 1970 and 1979.

It's been a generally one-sided rivalry in recent years, with Liverpool avoiding defeat in eight successive league games against United before this season.

Their clash at Old Trafford in August ended that run of course – had it not, nine matches without a win would've been United's worst ever run against a single team in Premier League history.

Nevertheless, United's most recent trip to Anfield will have left wounds that run deep.

The last visit

Having already lost 5-0 at home to Liverpool in the 2021-22 season, there was almost a feeling things couldn't get worse for United at Anfield last April.

In terms of the scoreline, they didn't. Technically a 4-0 defeat is better than a 5-0 loss.

But the stats painted a particularly harrowing picture for United after their second meeting of the season, which in itself was hugely one-sided.

The nine goals conceded over the two games was the most United had ever shipped against one team in a single Premier League campaign.

Furthermore, the 9-0 aggregate loss was the second worst in their entire league history, with only an 11-0 deficit to Sunderland in 1892-93 – yes, the 1890s, not a typo of the 1990s – being a greater margin.

Liverpool cut United open as early as the fifth minute, with Mohamed Salah laying the ball on a plate for Luis Diaz to tap in.

Sadio Mane then found Salah with an exceptional reverse pass for the Egyptian to make it 2-0 in the 22nd minute, before a fine first-time finish from the Senegal star midway through the second half had the Reds home and dry – if they weren't already.

Salah wrapped things up with a deflected chip, becoming the first player in Premier League history to score five goals against United in a single season after his hat-trick at Old Trafford.

Liverpool were then fully immersed in a bid for a quadruple having already won the EFL Cup.

This time around, remarkably, it's United in that position – they'll be hoping to at least match Liverpool by adding one more title before the season's conclusion.

The turning point

Matches against Liverpool have proven particularly poignant during Ten Hag's short association with United.

He was officially announced as the club's new manager two days after that Anfield hammering last April, and four months later he got his first win in charge against the Reds.

That's not to suggest his hiring was intrinsically linked to the loss to Liverpool – after all, reports had suggested for weeks prior that he was the primary choice. But there was a perception at the time that the club brought forward the announcement after that loss to ease fan concern.

Then, things started to go right for him and United with August's galvanising 2-1 win at Old Trafford.

United had, of course, lost their first two games of the season. Their humiliating 4-0 loss to Brentford on matchday two saw them end a day bottom of the Premier League for the first time since August 1992, Ten Hag becoming the only Red Devils manager to lose his two opening games in charge in 101 years.

But with expectations as low as could be, Ten Hag made his mark. Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire were dropped, and United went on to win 2-1.

Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford got the goals before Salah's late consolation, with United showing promising signs with their attacking fluidity.

Since then, only leaders Arsenal (54) have amassed more points than United (49) in the Premier League.

It all started against Liverpool.

The present

For the Reds, the top four remains absolutely attainable – though United presumably feel the same way about winning the title, even if Arsenal are 11 points ahead (having played a game more).

Stats Perform's supercomputer reckons United have only a 2.2 per cent chance of usurping the Gunners and Manchester City, however, which puts such ambition in the 'about as likely as Ralf Rangnick being re-hired' region – Liverpool, the model says, have a 28.4 per cent likelihood of getting fourth.

In that respect, a positive result arguably looks more important for United, if you can really put a number on such things.

But even if a league title proves unattainable, beating Liverpool in their own backyard would see Ten Hag break down another major barrier for Manchester United, bringing them a step closer to the light.

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