Manchester United make the most of European break, but still face tough task against Liverpool
The Red Devils re-emerge as contenders for a high finish with blistering run of form as clubs enjoy chance to focus solely on domestic competition
This current period of domestic-only action has produced some new twists near the top of the English Premier League and Manchester United, one of the teams who have thrived in recent weeks, host the big game of the weekend when they face Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday night.
Victory for United would confirm their re-emergence as serious contenders for a high finish, rather than mere also-rans, after a blistering run of form.
Three more points tomorrow would put them only two points behind Liverpool, a scenario that looked most unlikely a few weeks ago.
It is no coincidence that United’s resurgence has come during their break from European competition.
Chelsea and Liverpool, the current top two, have benefited all season from their absence from the strain of midweek games in the Champions League or Europa League, whereas the other title contenders were left to cope with relentless pressure on all fronts.
The top teams were all put on an equal footing fixture-wise in early December when the European competitions started a two-month break and United have taken full advantage.
Their last Europa League game was on December 8 and since then they have won every match, six in the Premier League and two more in cup competitions.
Tottenham, who endured a torrid Champions League campaign, have also thrived with only domestic action to occupy them.
They have won five out of six in the Premier League since the end of the Champions League group stage plus an FA Cup victory last weekend.
That further illustrates the impact of European football on the Premier League title race, following quickly after Leicester’s triumph last season when they were able to concentrate on a sole objective while most of their rivals had other distractions.
The recent rapid progress made by United and Tottenham also highlights the failure of Manchester City and Arsenal to raise their game during the break from the Champions League.
At a time when they should be moving forward, both teams have lost further ground to Chelsea and Liverpool in the period since early December.
United’s surge of form has been impressive and reflects not just their release from Thursday night Europa League games but also a growing confidence in Jose Mourinho’s philosophy and the improving adaptation to English football of players such as Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Mourinho argued all along that his team had been unlucky in several games but even the recent results are not proof positive that United are back as serious contenders.
Apart from the win over Tottenham, the recent run of games has not been too taxing with four of their last five league opponents coming from the bottom eight.
Liverpool will be more of a test and it will be interesting to see how Mourinho sets up to combat Juergen Klopp’s side, who have won impressively this season at Chelsea and Arsenal.
Mourinho took a negative approach in the away fixture at Anfield, which ended goalless, but he will have to find a way to be more adventurous at home while still counteracting Liverpool.
Klopp’s side are top of the mini-league based on games involving the big six teams, being the only team yet to taste defeat in that category.
United are bottom of the mini-league, with just one win out of five, whereas Liverpool have three wins and two draws from their five games.
The results suggest Liverpool are highly effective on the road against high-quality teams and that makes them the pick on the handicap to get a positive result.
A United win would be their best result of the season and is far from ruled out, but they still have to prove they can reach the same high level as Liverpool and Chelsea.
The best bet in the Premier League is Stoke on the handicap away to struggling Sunderland. The hosts have gone into a form trough again, whereas Stoke are proving a reliable handicap bet when they get easier opportunities.
Several away favourites look too short this weekend, including Southampton at Burnley, Bournemouth at Hull and Manchester City at Everton.
City’s bare figures on the road look reasonable enough, but in the past couple of months they have lost at Leicester and left it late to claim victory at Crystal Palace and Hull.
They will have to step up from that standard to beat Everton, who have picked up their own form with good recent home results against Manchester United and Arsenal.
Monchengladbach, Leipzig, Wolfsburg, Genoa.
Stoke on handicap
The most solid bet in the Premier League
Hoffenheim on handicap
Remarkably still unbeaten in the Bundesliga
Juventus away win
Highly reliable against good-quality sides
Roma away win
Chasers can continue strong form
Villarreal on handicap
Good chance against weak Deportivo
Goals in Liverpool’s 20 games, the highest in the Premier League