Opinion: Liverpool the biggest test for Mourinho's new look Manchester United

Jose Mourinho and Liverpool have a long history. From trying to sign Steven Gerrard for Chelsea while he was manager there to Gerrard’s slip at Anfield to allow Demba Ba end their hopes of a title, from Luis Garcia’s ghost goal to Jose's celebrations at the Carling Cup final; Liverpool are an enemy Mourinho loves to compete against which, in many ways, made him the perfect choice as manager of Manchester United.

Despite the usual quotes about Sunday’s game being just about three points, a victory over Liverpool is one you imagine Mourinho enjoys more than many others. However, putting Mourinho’s history with the Merseyside team to one side, Sunday still represents the biggest test for Jose Mourinho’s reborn Manchester United.

All change

A lot has happened since October’s stalemate at Anfield, a game where Manchester United were criticised for what was interpreted as a defensive display against their historic rivals. Since then the team have been on a run of 15 games unbeaten including 9 consecutive wins in all competitions, a run that has seen them close the gap on their top 4 rivals. Indeed, a victory over Liverpool, who currently sit second in the league, will reduce the gap between both teams to just two points.

That being said, Liverpool represent the biggest challenge to Mourinho’s in-form side’s recent good run

Test of mentality

Apart from the impressive 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur, which kicked off the nine-game winning streak, United have yet to play any other member for the top six in their recent run of games. Sunday’s match will be a test of the player’s mentality and their ability to perform at this level. With Liverpool coming to Old Trafford on the back of three games without a win, where they have failed to score in two, United are not necessarily facing a side bang in form as was the case in October where Mourinho mischievously referred to the media’s perception of them as ‘the last wonder of the world in attacking football’.  This is a game where United, at home and in form, have the opportunity to kill off their big rivals who seem to be game for a knockout punch. A victory over Liverpool has the possibility of having a damaging effect on their local rivals that will go beyond three lost points while a defeat could lead to a resurgence that may prove costlier than the points lost on the day.

The question is whether the United players have the mentality to go and dominate this game and treat it like any other football match against an opponent that is vulnerable. In other words, will the players play the game or the occasion?

Killing games off

Another big test for United on Sunday will be their ruthlessness. The main reason why United sit sixth and not second in the league at the moment is their inability to kill games off earlier in the season. Back then, the team was dominating games but not killing off the opposition which led to at least 12 points being dropped as United managed to throw away crucial points. Things have remarkably improved, especially from December onwards, which has seen the team become more clinical and ruthless both in attack and defence. The midweek EFL semi-final against Hull City, however, saw some of the old problems emerging, as in the absence of Michael Carrick and Zlatan Ibrahimović, the team struggled to kill the tie comfortably against a side playing with two midfielders as centre backs.

Such wastefulness in front of goal and lack of industry with possession cannot be repeated against Liverpool on Sunday if United hope to be emerging from the game with three points. With both Ibrahimović and Carrick expected to return to the starting line-up, the team should have the balance that has made them a force to be reckoned with. A ruthless display that puts Liverpool to the sword is the performance Mourinho needs to stamp home this winning run as not just a phase but the start of something special.

The real deal?

Phil Jones is expected to be reunited with Marcos Rojo for the derby on Sunday and this will be a game to test the validity of their partnership. Different stories have been aired about United’s pursuit of the Benfica defender, Victor Lindelöf, but it is clear that the form of Jones and Rojo have eased the need for United to sign another defender in January despite Eric Bailly’s absence from the side to join up with his national team.

At the start of the season, if anyone told you Jones and Rojo would be United’s first choice centre back pairings and would be as solid as a rock, you would have laughed or cried. Either way, you wouldn’t have taken such comments seriously. However, this is what has unfolded ever since the pair were partnered together in the league game away to Swansea. Both men have grown in stature and improved remarkably in performances so much so that they have established themselves as Jose Mourinho’s first choice.

Sunday’s game will be a good test of how much a real deal this partnership is. Even with the absence of Sadio Mané, the movement of Liverpool’s forward line if given the freedom, can create problems for any defence. Jones, Rojo and Carrick in front of them will need to be on their game to give the team a solid foundation to build from. Should the duo emerge from the game unscathed, then there will be no rational doubters left.

It will also be a great opportunity for Paul Pogba to stamp his authority over an A-list game. Pogba’s performances over the last couple of months have rightfully brought him a lot of praise and accolades as his performances earlier in the season brought him criticisms. This is a game for the big player. The likes of Wayne Rooney, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Paul Scholes to mention a few have absolutely treasured this derby and have stamped their footprint all over the games with winning goals or dominating performances, Sunday offers Pogba the opportunity to do the same.

Sunday’s derby promises to be a more exciting match-up than the game at Anfield in October and for both sides, there is much more to gain and lose than three points.