REUTERS - It is always risky to tick off your own supporters, but Jose Mourinho’s pointed plea to Manchester United’s faithful not to treat Liverpool’s visit like a trip to the theatre indicates just how critical Sunday’s Old Trafford clash feels to him.
Liverpool fans, who have never needed any encouragement to turn their Anfield home into an intimidating cauldron of noise for United, have evidently found it amusing that Mourinho should need to urge his side’s fans to make themselves heard.
There is, of course, method in the United manager’s gentle chiding of the club’s supporters, who were conspicuously muted during the 2-0 midweek win over Hull City in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final.
“What I feel is Sunday is a special match for the Man United fans. So my invitation is ‘don’t come to the theatre, come to play, play with us’,” Mourinho urged.
By rekindling memories of Roy Keane’s scathing dismissal in 2000 of the corporate hospitality element among United’s fans as the prawn sandwich brigade, the manager clearly hopes the implied slight will spur United fans to make the Theatre of Dreams feel nightmarish for Liverpool again.
For the latest edition of the English game’s most seething rivalry could prove pivotal.
If a packed Old Trafford can roar Mourinho’s increasingly impressive creation to a 10th successive win in all competitions, United will be only two points behind a free-scoring Liverpool side lionised all season as potential champions.
Yet if Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool can get over their New Year hangover -- they have yet to win in 2017 and were awful as they lost in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final against Southampton -- they can reignite their title ambitions while delivering a savage blow to United as realistic contenders.
Amid a crowded schedule, Liverpool have unquestionably lost momentum, as well as striker Sadio Mane, who is away on African Cup of Nations duty with Senegal
Yet midfield magician Philippe Coutinho is back and injured captain Jordan Henderson, whose leadership was sorely missed at Southampton, should also return at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, Mourinho’s claim that Sunday will be a “special match” for United fans will be vindicated gloriously should United prevail with a Wayne Rooney goal.
Rooney netted his 249th for the club in Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Reading and needs only one more to pass Bobby Charlton’s record.
Yet this is not about individual milestones, says Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who with 13 goals to his name is himself in the thick of the race to be the Premier League’s leading marksman.
“I said from the beginning -- slowly, slowly, we will get better and everything was about the click. We needed to click as a team. Now you see the identity of the team,” Ibrahimovic, who missed the Hull game with illness but will be back on Sunday, told the club’s official website.
“The last one-and-a-half months have shown the right way. We wait for the other teams to have their dips, to make their mistakes, and we will be there.”
The old Swedish thoroughbred made United sound like a quality racehorse timing its run over the final furlongs to perfection. And with Mourinho’s help, the Old Trafford faithful could yet roar them home.
Editing by David Goodman