Manchester United vs Liverpool: Key battles on the pitch

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17: Memphis Depay of Manchester United in action with Alberto Moreno of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on January 17 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17: Memphis Depay of Manchester United in action with Alberto Moreno of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on January 17 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images) /
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United’s difficult matchup against Liverpool at Anfield is sure to be marked by several individual battles.

Manchester United’s search of Champions League salvation continues into the Europa League Round of 16, where they will face Liverpool.

Both clubs enjoyed relatively successful periods in February, though the Reds went on to lose the League Cup Final in penalties against Manchester City. The more recent form favors the opposition, however, as they have won their previous two while Manchester United are coming off the defeat to West Brom.

Additionally, both Louis van Gaal and Jurgen Klopp will have multiple players back for the match. The Red Devils will likely feature Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia on the bench, while the Reds will have Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho, and Nathaniel Clyne at full match fitness after resting against Crystal Palace.

Chris Smalling is well aware of the importance of the match’s individual battles, saying in the pre-match presser:

"“I think, quite often, the first 20 minutes can be quite frantic. But you want to get the upper hand on your opponent, whoever you’re playing against. For me, for example, it’s the striker. Very early on, you want to get an early challenge in and make sure you dominate.”"

With that in mind, here are three key battles that could determine the outcome.

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Chris Smalling vs Christian Benteke/Daniel Sturridge

It’s anyone’s guess at who will start as striker for the home side. Klopp has chosen a plethora of attacking lineups, including the use of a false striker. Benteke has had a mediocre first season at Anfield, but he was able to score a goal in his limited involvement during the win over Palace. Additionally, the former Aston Villa man scored a consolation wonder goal in the two sides’ previous match up in the last calendar year.

Sturridge looks to be the more likely of the two to start, given his increased involvement since the start of February. That should favor Smalling heavily, as the defender is more than capable of out-muscling the 26-year-old while maintaining position to counter his pace. Additionally, United’s defensive leader is vastly superior in aerial battles, meaning Liverpool set pieces won’t be headed in Sturridge’s direction.

Morgan Schneiderlin vs Philippe Coutinho

This individual battle could alone determine the match’s result. Coutinho is a crafty, pacey midfielder that loves to take on defenders one on one, while Schneiderlin has exceptional defensive ability at the heart of Manchester United’s midfield.

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Both players have picked up their form in the past month or so. The Brazilian attacker has two goals and two assists to his name since the February 9th West Ham loss, while United’s French talent has drastically improved on his form from earlier in the season. Louis van Gaal made a mistake in not selecting Schneiderlin for the West Brom clash, and I don’t see him making it twice in one week.

Memphis Depay vs Nathaniel Clyne

Much like Memphis vs Bellerin was a pivotal battle in the Arsenal match, the Memphis vs Clyne dual presents a similar clash to keep an eye on. The Red Devils were reportedly beaten to Clyne’s signature in the summer when he left Southampton, and his decent performances for Liverpool have shown what they’ve missed.

But Memphis could make his 90 minutes miserable when the two square off. The winger has limitless pace and technical ability, the likes of which have been showcased in recent weeks. To make matters worse, the 22-year-old will likely put pressure on Clyne when the latter is on the ball, given his difficulties in maintaining possession. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Memphis pickpocket Clyne en route to whipping in a goal.

Next: Ramifications of United vs Liverpool

The history of dislike between the two clubs goes without saying, and Thursday’s match between Manchester United and Liverpool is sure to be another test of wills and wits from both sides.