When this season’s fixture list was unveiled back in the summer, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho will have been pleased to see how favourable the start his side had been presented.
They would not have to contest a top-six side until October. Having said this, it would not have escaped Mourinho’s thoughts that it was the teams lower down the league that United had most issues with last season, notably when playing at Old Trafford.
There were too many draws that should have been wins.
But after seven games, the spiky Portuguese – who, despite winning three trophies last season, probably looks back and rues the mistakes made more than he relishes the success.
He oversaw six very convincing wins and one draw, and are currently second in the table, with Man City in first position thanks only to a marginally better goal difference.
But despite this hugely promising start to the new season, there is still a question hanging over this powerful, energetic and goal-hungry side.
It is a question that will have presented itself more vividly to Mourinho as the full-time whistle blew at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening, signalling the end to a very entertaining game from which Pep Guardiola’s Man City emerged victorious.
With City and United both in imperious form (both domestically and in Europe) and with both sides having made such strong starts, the narrative has been all about who will blink first.
United have been pounding teams, which they certainly did not make a habit of last season. New signing Romelu Lukaku is in unstoppable form with seven league goals to his name already.
Anthony Martial looks a player reborn and despite not being a regular starter, the 21-year-old, when he is called upon, absolutely terrifies defenders, constantly leaving them in his wake as he deftly manoeuvres into the opposition box and consistently creates chances.
Since Paul Pogba’s injury, United and Mourinho have coped in midfield. The Frenchman had made such a promising start to the campaign, having scored twice and provided three assists in the opening four games.
When he tweaked his hamstring 19 minutes into the Champions League group-stage game against Basel, it will no doubt have made Mourinho worry.
But since then, United’s midfield has not only coped with Pogba’s absence, they have been exemplary, with summer signing Nemanja Matic adding solidity and maturity with his performances. They also have the form of Marouane Fellaini – once booed by United fans – to be thankful for. He is not only just breaking up play well, but also is becoming rather potent in front of goal.
But despite this great start from United, Mourinho will have either watched or heard about City’s 1-0 victory against the champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. And perhaps he will have thought back to when the fixture list was first announced, and just maybe he will have wished that at this point in the season, he could have done what Guardiola and City have done twice already: dispatch a top-six side.
Both Chelsea and Liverpool have now both been on the losing end of some fine City performances, with their attacking prowess being more fluently displayed against Liverpool than at Chelsea, where the players showed more their ability to remain solid and not lose composure.
To win away at the champions’ home ground, especially against a team who in mid-week recorded a fabulous win away to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, is a feat that mustn’t be underestimated.
And while Liverpool may not be considered direct title rivals, it was the Reds who last season looked at their most dangerous when playing top six sides.
In fact, before their thumping 5-0 win over Klopp’s side in September, Man City had failed to beat Liverpool in the league in their last five meetings, with Liverpool winning four of those.
The question of who has the upper hand right now between the two Manchester clubs is no doubt answered by the fact that United are yet to be properly tested, and also the fact that City have been tested, and have come away unscathed.
Two wins and two clean sheets against two fellow top six teams is an enormous message of intent.
Mourinho and United will finally get their chance to send out a similar message after the international break. On October 14, Anfield is the destination.
Liverpool have struggled slightly of late. In a way, they have a problem at present that United couldn’t quite shake last season, which is turning draws into wins.
But regardless of their current defensive issues, their attack is scary. Sadio Mane, Phillipe Coutinho, Mohammad Salah and Roberto Firmino all started for the first time together against Spartak Moscow in the last Champions League gameweek, and yet Liverpool could not get the victory.
But they only need time to start to gel together and when they do, the speed, skill and quality of all four players will be in full flow.
If United can go to Liverpool and win, managing also to keep a clean sheet, it will be more than enough to prove that this team have what it takes to push City right to the end.
Last season, Mourinho’s preferred tactic when playing away against the top teams was to sit back, soak up pressure and try to push for the draw. Essentially, his aim was not to lose.
But if the former Chelsea and Real Madrid manager wants to send a message of his own, like Pep and City did against Chelsea on Saturday, then United must go to Anfield and win. If they draw or lose, City will retain the upper hand.
David Newman, Pundit Arena
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