MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - There will be more at stake for Manchester United than second place and local pride against Liverpool on Saturday as their performance could define perceptions of their season and their level of progress under Jose Mourinho.
Despite being ahead of Juergen Klopp’s side in the race to finish distant Premier League runners-up to Manchester City, there is an air of dissatisfaction among United fans and it has little to do with the 16-point gap to Pep Guardiola’s team.
The nagging doubts about what kind of team manager Mourinho is building and whether he is making strides in returning the club to English football’s summit have not dissipated despite a campaign of mostly solid results.
Last year was written off as a season of transition. This year supporters expected to see a side that was at least close in quality to those they came to expect under former manager Alex Ferguson.
In the reverse fixture in October, Mourinho’s United approached the task at Anfield with what was widely viewed as unnecessary caution.
A draw at Klopp’s Liverpool is a good result for any side, but the goalless, and largely spiritless, defensive display from United left many fans with an empty feeling.
At home to City, United were well beaten by Guardiola’s side and again failed to raise many heartbeats with their performance. It is hard to imagine Mourinho’s men going to the Etihad for the return fixture on April 7 and delivering a rousing, entertaining display.
The Champions League could yet offer some thrills and glory for United, who face Sevilla in their last-16 second leg on Tuesday.
Yet there is the sense that Saturday’s game is the last chance in the Premier League for United to resemble a team that can dominate, attack and beat one of the top three sides.
Liverpool passed that test with flying colours in their exhilarating 4-3 win over City in January, a result and performance which offered the tantalising prospect of Klopp’s side producing a real challenge to City next season.
Few would doubt that Liverpool have improved this season and are on a strong upward trajectory under their German coach.
The same cannot be said with such confidence about United.
A win over Liverpool, especially if allied with a positive performance including effective displays from key players Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, would go a long way to changing the atmosphere around Old Trafford.
“They’ve scored a lot of goals this year, but we kept them quiet at Anfield,” said United defender Chris Smalling.
“I think the fact that this game is at home means we’ll be in the ascendancy and on the front foot. It’s a case of keeping them quiet and having them worry about all of our attacking players,” he said.
It will be fascinating to see if Smalling is right but Liverpool’s Croatian defender Dejan Lovren has a feeling United will be cautious again.
“I think so. They need the points, definitely,” he said. “For them it will be maybe a good point but, for us, we never play for a point. We will play like we play every day, attacking football. Let’s enjoy.”
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis