SOUNESS: Liverpool 7-4 Man Utd… That's the split in my combined XI

GRAEME SOUNESS: Liverpool 7-4 Manchester United… That’s the split in my combined XI of the two arch-rivals battling for a place in the Champions League – despite Erik ten Hag’s huge £220m spend

  • Liverpool remain the stronger team despite their at-times patchy campaign 
  • After demolishing Real Madrid, a Champions League trophy is Man City’s to lose 
  • Marcus Rashford is a doubt for United’s crucial trip to Bournemouth after illness 

Perhaps I could start this week by setting a little exercise – to name the best composite Manchester United and Liverpool team from their performances this season.

Don’t let me try to influence you. Everyone will have different opinions. But I will venture to say that there are not many Manchester United players in my composite team, despite the substantial spending when Erik ten Hag came in last summer.

For me, Liverpool remain the stronger team of the two and having closed the gap from the 17-point advantage United had on them in mid-February, are in with a real chance of taking the last Champions League spot. Just one point divides them.

Early last month, when the gap between the two sides was still 13 points, United would have thought, ‘We’ve eliminated the threat from Liverpool.’ But their poor form – dropping 10 points in the last eight league games – has created a pressurised situation going into the last three games. Suddenly, United find themselves looking over their shoulders, needing two wins from those three games to guarantee a top-four finish.

Whose shoes would I rather be in? United’s. You always want to be in charge of your own destiny. But they’ve had a very early morning wake-up call in the past few weeks. Suddenly, they find that they’re no longer a shoo-in for a Champions League place. Liverpool’s form has planted a seed of doubt in their minds.

Manchester United still have the race for Champions League qualification firmly in their hands 

Liverpool have managed to reduce a 17-point gap to just one at the business end of the season 

Mail Sport’s Graeme Souness feel only four United players warrant a place in a combined XI

Liverpool’s seven-match winning run since mid-April does need to be kept in perspective. It’s been a comfortable run of fixtures, even though you still have to win those games. There’s been a real inconsistency about Liverpool this season. Their most worrying result – which emphasised that inconsistency – came at the point when they should have been on a ridiculous high.

As a Liverpool player, I never touched the heights of beating United 7-0, as the team did in March, though I know that psychologically you could never have been in a better place, after a result like that. Yet in the very next game they failed to turn up at Bournemouth and lost 1-0. With the greatest respect to Bournemouth, that’s a team Liverpool should be beating.

I still believe there’s recruitment needed for Liverpool’s midfield, just as I said in these pages back in August. There’s a lot of talk about Trent Alexander-Arnold pushing into a central midfield role. You’ll get away with that against the lesser teams. Not so against the better ones.

Trent is one of the best passers of the ball in the league, but what concerns me about him playing there is what happens in the transitions when Liverpool lose the ball. If Trent is in midfield, he will have a bigger number of critical decisions to make in that moment. 

Virgil van Dijk’s right-sided central defensive partner – Joel Matip, Ibrahima Konate or Joe Gomez – will be asked to split and push out into the wider area to cover the full-back position. Centre backs don’t like to be out there, because they feel exposed.

But for all that, United are the ones who have to keep their nerve in these all-important two weeks. I ascribe some of their fall-off in form to the absence of Lisandro Martinez. They’ve have won only three of their six league matches since he was injured at Sevilla. 

I thought Martinez would get found out in the Premier League because of his physique. I still believe that will be an issue for him going forward – but he is one who leads from the front for United and has a big influence on those around him.

He is one of the four United players who do make my composite team, along with Casemiro, who also has that winning mentality, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes. But Liverpool players dominate my XI. 

Lisandro Martinez leads from the front for United and has a big influence on those around him

Liverpool’s seven-match winning run does need to be kept in perspective, says Souness

Marcus Rashford (left) and Casemiro are two United players that have impressed throughout

United will hope to add an FA Cup victory to their Carabao Cup win earlier this season

If United end up winning the FA Cup, on top of the League Cup, that would have been a great season for them. But they’re still way short of challenging for the title and Champions League. A club of their status needs to be challenging for those.

Claiming a top four spot can also help teams secure your transfer targets, though the majority of players who get a chance to sign for either Liverpool or United are going to take it. These are not just major football clubs. They’re institutions. Anyone who has a chance to play for either of them would jump at it, Champions League or not.

It’s impossible to predict who is going to claim this top four position. The inconsistencies of the two sides mean either could lose again. But having had that substantial lead and lost it, the pressure is on United. 

They will feel they can win two of their last three games against Bournemouth, Chelsea and Fulham. No game is easy for them because United, like Liverpool, only play games in which the opposition consider them a major scalp.

Winning at Bournemouth on Saturday would be a significant step but they have their fiercest rivals on their tails. If there’s one team they would hate to miss out on Champions League football to, it’s Liverpool.

Why thrilling City are shoo-ins for Euro glory 

The fact that Real Madrid’s midfield needs renewing was there for all to see on Wednesday night against a thrilling Manchester City team. We saw that the days of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric at that level are now over and that Real are in for a major rebuild.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Karim Benzema but that game passed him by. The intensity was too much for him. Watching the Milan semi-final second leg didn’t change my opinion of what Italian football has become. 

I just can’t see how Inter Milan can possibly beat this City team in Istanbul. Inter will spend at last 60 per cent of the time without the ball and most of that in their own half, in and around their own box. It’s there for City to win.

After an emphatic win against Real Madrid, the Champions League is Manchester City’s to lose

Karim Benzema looked a shadow of his former self at the Etihad as Real were defeated 4-0

Despite Inter’s strong showing against their loathed rivals Milan, they are huge underdogs

The day I pushed Bob up the stairs 

It’s 40 years since Bob Paisley retired from management. His last Anfield game was against Aston Villa, who Liverpool play in that great stadium on Saturday. But it was after we’d beaten Manchester United in the League Cup final at Wembley in 1983 that we tried to make sure he got the acclaim. 

I literally had to push him up the stairs when we were collecting the trophy because he didn’t want to be the centre of attention.

‘Just another game. Did my bit. No fuss.’ That was Bob. But if anyone deserved to bask in the glory for a moment, it was him that day. It was only in later years that people realised the full value of what Bob had delivered. 

He was – is – one of the managerial greats in world football.

Only in later years did people realise the enormous scale of Bob Paisley’s achievements

Souness won the European Cup under Paisley for Liverpool in 1978 (pictured) and 1981

Southampton pay heavy price for bad decisions 

We cannot be surprised that Southampton are relegated. They released five players with Premier League experience, before the season and of the 12 players they signed last summer, nine were 21 or under. 

The perfect scenario is that those young players come in, have an impact, keep you in the Premier League and their monetary value goes up.

The alternative scenario is that they get you relegated and are no longer worth the money you paid for them. This is a classic case of another very wealthy man, Dragan Solak, coming into the football and listening to the wrong people, like a whole litany of other owners. 

I’m not sure that I see James Ward-Prowse leaving and the challenge is to keep that squad together. They’ve paid a heavy price for their misjudgement.

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