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Why Manchester United's returning star holds the key to success over Liverpool

Angel Di Maria vs Lucas Leiva

Considering the woefully disjointed performances of both these sides in recent weeks, Gary Neville's pub team analogy was understandable, if hyperbolic. In reality, when playing at Old Trafford, Manchester United are beginning to show a confidence and possessional assurance that could be too much for struggling Liverpool.

With the added creative impetus of Angel Di Maria, this Sunday's north-west derby will be a tough test indeed for Brendan Rodgers & Co.

United may play like The Dog and Duck on their travels, but in recent weeks, Old Trafford – after three straight home victories, with an average of 71% possession and 629 passes – has begun to reclaim its big status, thanks largely to Michael Carrick's restoration. All that's been missing is a creative spark that, on Sunday, is returning.

Since Carrick's return, United have been considerably more calm and confident in possession.

Considering the decline in Di Maria's form before his hamstring injury, the short break may, counter-intuitively, have rekindled his creative prowess. With 6 assists and 2.8 key passes per game, his return to the side is timely.

Note how often Di Maria attempts take-ons; the directness of his play has been sorely missed.

However, Liverpool possess just the weapon to hold him back. Lucas Leiva, averaging 3.5 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per match, is beginning to return to the imperious form that has deserted him in recent seasons.

Traditionally anchoring the team from a central position, Lucas's defensive work will be crucial in preventing the roaming Di Maria from opening Liverpool up. The battle between these two players – pace against strength, skill against force – will be very intriguing, and could decide which of these teams comes out on top.

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