The Premier League might be a marathon, not a sprint, as the timeless cliché goes. Yet, there are times over the course of an epic campaign when a sprint of sorts is required; when a burst of intensity can leave opponents demoralised.
Before the international break Manchester City did exactly that. Their performance and subsequent victory at the home of champions Chelsea was akin to quickening the cadence to flush a few stragglers out of the pack. It was a standard we’ve not seen in the 2017-18 season.
This weekend, Manchester United have a chance to make similar strides, as they visit the home of their fiercest rivals Liverpool. Bet on the match at BMR’s green-listed bookmakers.
The signs have been overwhelmingly positive for the Red Devils so far. This is a team that has the seal of Jose Mourinho stamped on it after more than a year in the Old Trafford hot seat. They can outmuscle you, can outrun you and can outplay you, making them a formidable opponent for any side in the division. What we’ve yet to discover is how this group of players reacts under the biggest pressure in a white-hot atmosphere.
Of course, throughout his coaching career Mourinho’s ability to set a team up to get a result in a specific encounter has been one of his trademarks. Tactically, there’s be meticulous preparation put into this game, while the 11 lads in United colours who walk out at Anfield on Saturday lunchtime will have total clarity as to what their role is on the day.
That’s important, as there will be hostility flung their way from the home supporters, as is customary for this fixture. And Mourinho will learn plenty about his players as a result, especially those you anticipate will be at the crux of his United tenure for years to come.
Can Eric Bailly marshal the United defence to a clean sheet against this Liverpool attack? Can Henrik Mkhitaryan provide the creativity to pry the hosts open? And can goal machine Romelu Lukaku shed a reputation as a big man who shrinks on the big stage?
Liverpool will hope the answer to all of those questions is an emphatic "no".
While this is an enormous game for United, it’s also one upon which Liverpool’s season can turn. Win on Saturday lunchtime and they go back to within four points of the Red Devils and ahead of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal for a few hours at least.
Big games appear to draw the best from this team, too. While there have already been some disappointing draws against inferior opponents in the Premier League for Liverpool so far this season, Jurgen Klopp has no problem rallying his team for these encounters.
No Sadio Mane will be a big blow for the Reds, as the winger is so often the man who leads the charge in these big games. Even so, we should see a side with the handbrake off here in the first 30 minutes. Fuelled by the fervent atmosphere and perhaps encouraged by a deep-sitting opponent, expect Liverpool to smother United to begin with.
Mourinho will know that and you sense he’ll set his team up accordingly. If his side can take the best shots offered by Liverpool in that spell, they’ve shown throughout the campaign they're capable of growing in games late on. If there’s still parity with an hour on the clock, United will feel they have a brilliant chance.
Plus, based on the way Liverpool have defended this campaign, there will be an acknowledgement from the visitors that chances will come. Either created by the brilliance of Mkhitaryan, Lukaku or Juan Mata, or potentially gifted to them by an inept Reds backline.
It’ll be frantic, edgy and undoubtedly feisty at Anfield and it’d be no surprise to see this one on a knife edge as we move into the last third of the match. From there, United feel like the side better equipped to go on and win the game. Pick: Man United 1, Liverpool 0
Manchester United to win (9/5, Sporting Bet)
Under 2.5 Total Goals (10/11, Betfair)
Draw half time/Manchester United full time (11/2, Bet365)