Richard Buxton: United-Pool game could offer clues to next season
Man United v Liverpool could be a preview of Man City's biggest threat next season
When Manchester United host Liverpool tomorrow, it is not only a blockbuster clash between the arch-rivals, but also a contest to see who are better placed to take the fight to Manchester City next season.
United, under Jose Mourinho, are set for their highest finish in the English Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson's final title-winning season in 2012/13.
In the subsequent seasons, they have ended up seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth.
Mourinho struggles to handle second-best status well at any time, though. It has regularly consumed him throughout a trophy-laden yet tempestuous coaching career.
Secondary to the hierarchies at Chelsea and Real Madrid, a greater inadequacy will confront him at Old Trafford tomorrow.
His counterpart Juergen Klopp appears more capable of assuming the challenge of making the Reds the undisputed "best of the rest", with an eye on laying siege to City's throne next season.
Overhauling an all-conquering juggernaut is far from uncharted territory for the effusive German, having unseated Bayern Munich during his time in charge at Borussia Dortmund.
Klopp's Dortmund, which espoused his gegenpressing philosophy, wrested the title from the Bavarian giants in 2010/2011.
They retained the title the following season and reached the Champions League final in 2012/13.
That experience has allowed Liverpool to believe that they can again scale former heights with a manager whose ability to shift focus has seen his players' momentum shift rapidly.
Where Klopp's side previously went through the gears, they are now ramping up the pressure both in the EPL and the Champions League, despite Wednesday morning's (Singapore time) drab goalless draw against Porto in the latter suggesting otherwise on the back of a 5-0 aggregate from the first leg.
Mourinho, meanwhile, inhabits a world that is increasingly an alien concept to him; one where both success and progress is measured by intangible yardsticks rather than trophies.
SUBSTANCE OVER STYLE
Basic substance over style no longer cuts it for the Special One, particularly at a club where an emphasis on attractive, free-flowing football is greater than any of their domestic rivals.
Mourinho's way is not the United way, nor is it ever likely to become.
Rather than rising to City's challenge, he has instead reverted to a default setting.
Aiming veiled barbs in the direction of Pep Guardiola did not end well for the United manager in the past and merely exposed a continued inability to overcome his long-standing nemesis.
Under Mourinho, the Red Devils have spent £91 million (S$166.2 million) more than Liverpool during Klopp's reign, yet the numbers fail to absolve United's shortcomings.
At best, the Portuguese has made them an even costlier upgrade on the lavish yet insipid team he had inherited from Louis van Gaal barely three summers ago.
Two points separate them from Liverpool in the table while their four leading scorers - Romelu Lukaku, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial - have recorded 10 fewer goals than the 68 plundered by Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
Yet they are a team built largely in Mourinho's image, exemplified by the recent self-serving performances of Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez.
The former Arsenal forward has been allowed to coast through his opening eight games by sole virtue of his preceding reputation.
Matters have been worsened by Pogba's own underwhelming cameos as he treats the United shirt like the costume of a children's entertainer, performing a myriad of cheap tricks that offer little in the grander scheme - a fitting metaphor for Mourinho's current legacy.