John Arne Riise on Liverpool’s form, the title race and Manchester United
We recently sat down with former Liverpool favourite John Arne Riise ahead of one of the biggest matches in the Premier League season this weekend, Liverpool versus Manchester United.
The Norwegian had his say on all things Liverpool, including their recent form, Jurgen Klopp and his prediction for Sunday’s match which could influence the title race.
Here is what the former left-back had to say ahead of his Liverpool versus Manchester United Ladbrokes 5-A-Side selection…
On Liverpool v Man United
“If Man United beat Liverpool on Sunday, they’ve got six points on Liverpool. That’s not an easy gap for Liverpool to close at this stage of the season against a team in a good run of form.
“But then again, if they lose that match to Liverpool – which I think they will do – they’re even again. The pressure is on Liverpool this weekend. They don’t want to lose this game. Don’t lose it; that’s the most important thing the players have to remember.
“I know how important it is to beat Man United and I do have confidence that the Liverpool players will be up for it.
“Sunday is a perfect game for the Liverpool players to prove to Jurgen Klopp and the fans that this is just a blip and they will be back up there fighting for first place.
“Man United are very reliant on Bruno Fernandes, though. If he’s out for any reason this season, they’ll struggle. That’s why I don’t think United will be up there in May, because they’re too dependent on that one player. Man City and Liverpool have so many players who can carry the team; Man United only have one.
“The weak side of United is defensively, and while it’s a good opportunity for Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, at the same time we have to look at the Man United forwards. If they can keep a solid base, then Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford could cause damage to a weak Liverpool defence.
“The main thing Liverpool have to do is make sure they aren’t giving United a chance at all in the game to counter-attack them, because they will hurt them. It’s a game of two managers finding the right tactics this weekend. It’s a much closer game than I would’ve thought a couple of months ago.
“If you look at the form and everything that’s happened in recent weeks, you’d say United are the ones to beat because they’re top of the table. But when you look at how both sides play football, and the fact the game is at Anfield, I still think Liverpool are favourites to win the game, simply because of the job they have done over the past 18 months.
“But that doesn’t mean United won’t head into the game full of confidence and belief that they can win.”
Best memory of Liverpool v Man United
“I can’t lie, it was brilliant going out in Liverpool after I scored that free-kick. You’re playing in a game consisting of two of the biggest teams in the world. Not only was it huge over here, but in my home country, it was Riise versus Solskjaer as well. It was a massive game, so to score a goal the way I did, for me, was a career-making moment.
“It made me realise I was good enough for this level. At the same time the fans could see what I could do, take me into their hearts and support me. It made life a lot easier for myself in Liverpool. I felt accepted for who I was. Without that goal, I wouldn’t have had half as good a time as I did during my Liverpool career.
“Fans still send me the video of that goal to this day on social media. They tell me where they were when I scored it, how many pints they’d had before my free-kick. All of these things make me so proud. I scored a goal which thousands of fans will remember forever and from my point of view football doesn’t get much better than that… I just hope I did other stuff that was good for the team, not just that goal!
“We had so many players who wanted to be on free-kicks – Stevie [Gerrard], Danny Murphy, Xabi Alonso – but I was the only one who was left-footed so I got to have more than enough!
“Whenever there was a free-kick on the right-hand side, more often than not it would be me who got to take it. I had respect for my players though so if ever any of my teammates fancied it – especially Stevie – then of course I’d let them have it.
“I played for Roma and it was a similar situation with Francesco Totti; you’re not exactly going to argue with Totti, are you? If he wants to take the free-kick, guess what? He takes the free-kick!”
On Liverpool’s problems
“The issue for Liverpool at the moment is that they’ve stopped taking their chances. They create so many chances in every game but they’re just not taking them. They haven’t been scoring like they normally do, and it’s why they’re winless in three league games. You need to change that and take those chances; it’s something Man United have done and it’s why they’re top of the league.
“Liverpool are playing their own style of football and every year opponents are working on how they can defend against them. At the same time, those opponents are also looking at how and where Liverpool can be punished.
“They’ve started missing chances this year that they’d have scored last year – and if you do that at this level, you end up drawing or losing a lot more games – which is what they have done this season.”
Man United title contenders
“I think at the moment I can only see a title race between three teams: Liverpool, Man City and Man United.
“When it comes to the end of the season, I think it’ll be between Liverpool and Man City; I don’t think United will be able to keep up their current form. I might be wrong; I like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer because he’s from Norway and we will always support our own people – it’s just a shame he’s managing the wrong team!”
“I’ve been very impressed with what Solskjaer has done this season and how he’s turned things around after the stick he’s had from the fans and the media. He’s stuck at it, they’re top of the league and to be honest I think they deserve to be there because of the way they’ve played.
“There were a couple of games earlier on this season where pressure was really mounting on Soslkjaer. You’re watching United thinking ‘if they lose this one, he’s gone’. They’d win it and you’d skip forward to the next game and think ‘but if they lose this one, he might be gone’. But he has a habit of winning the games that he needs to win for his own sake.
“In the last seven, eight, nine games I think they’ve been brilliant. They’ve found a style of play where they’re solid defensively, they press high and they’re so good on the counter-attack.
“At the moment they’re the most feared team in the league because of how they play that counter-attack. They have so much pace up-front, and then they’ve got Bruno Fernandes in behind who can score goals and create chances for his teammates. I think they’ve found the perfect style that works for them.
“Solskjaer has been clever not to change anything too drastically despite the poor run of form United were in a few weeks ago. If you were to start changing your way of doing things, then people can see you’ve lost it. When you don’t believe in your own style of football, you’ve lost.
“Solskjaer has stuck to his style and the players have started to adapt to that. Look at where they were two months ago; it’s a totally different side we’re seeing now.
“When Solskjaer first got the job, I thought he was just going to last for the season; I thought it was an interim thing and they’d bring someone else in in the summer. I actually thought at that time they would bring in Zinedine Zidane. But they stuck with Solskjaer, he’s still there now, and you’ve got to give the boss credit for what he’s done since he took over.”
Man City shouldn’t be favourites for the title
“In my opinion I think Liverpool should be favourites to win the league, not Man City. I also thought at one stage that Chelsea might have been up there. They had a good start to the season but they’re losing too many games and are lacking in consistency.”
“For a neutral football fan, it must be great to watch a league like this when it’s so tight. You never know who is going to finish in the top four, or even the top six.
“Liverpool and Man City are going to be up there, and then Man United will probably be in third place. Then you’ve got one more spot in the top four, and five or six teams who’ll genuinely think they can get that fourth spot. In my opinion, I think Tottenham will get it.”
On Jurgen Klopp’s fixture complaints
“As a former player, I loved it when there were so many games back-to-back. I loved playing games, travelling and being with the boys. But also, I loved playing for the fans; they gave you just that little bit more energy that the players obviously don’t have at the moment because there aren’t any fans in stadiums.
“I understand the complaints from Jurgen Klopp and other managers about the amount of games, but for me I loved those weeks where you’d play two or three times. That’s what I trained hard for; it was my job and I always wanted to play as many games as possible. I would never complain about playing too many games.
“Klopp and Jose Mourinho will argue about fixture congestion because they want to put pressure on the federation to try and change things. Maybe there was an opportunity for Klopp to rest a few players in the FA Cup last week, but at the same time, it’s a competition they want to win.
“The manager will always ask players if they’re fit to play. Klopp has things under control; what he’s doing in the media is just to put pressure on the FA; he has a great medical team behind him and he knows the fitness levels of each of his players. If someone wasn’t fit or he felt they needed a rest, he wouldn’t play them.
“Let’s not forget they played on Friday night and their next fixture isn’t until Sunday. That means he’s had a nine-day break, which explains why he fielded such a strong side against Aston Villa.
“It might have been different if Liverpool had a midweek fixture this week, but he knows his players will have had a proper rest. Also, Man United have had a midweek game against Burnley, so Liverpool should be heading into Sunday’s game as the fresher side.”
Match prediction: Liverpool 3-1 Man United
“I think both teams will be thinking they can hurt Sunday’s opponents by taking advantage of their defence, which makes for a great game. I’m going for a 3-1 win for Liverpool.”