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about turn The real reasons why I believe Manchester United and Liverpool are trading places

Pogba has decided to show what he can do

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Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Manchester United's Paul Pogba embrace after the Anfield league clash

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Manchester United's Paul Pogba embrace after the Anfield league clash

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Manchester United's Paul Pogba embrace after the Anfield league clash

The jolt of Liverpool's abrupt tumble from the heavens cuffs the senses even as Manchester United startle their own pilot by rediscovering the miracle of flight.

All the demented Premier League storylines have us reaching for the catchphrase of Craggy Island's Father Dougal McGuire: "That's mad, Ted."

What wild humours have seized control of the universe, setting Planet Football spinning on a crazy, unforeseen axis?

George Lee stripping to his boxers and doing the can-can while announcing NPHET's latest Covid figures on Six One suddenly appears a better bet than suddenly-toothless Liverpool scoring a first Premier League goal of 2021.

At the same time, United, though kinks clearly remain, are unbeaten on their travels for a full year. With Paul Pogba belatedly remembering he is a World Cup-winning athlete and not a full-time industrial agitator, they have surged to the January summit for the first time in the post-Ferguson era.

Of course, it would be straying into the territory of absurdly premature judgement to present even a tentative thesis that the Premier League is re-aligning to the old, familiar co-ordinates of Alex Ferguson's long dominion.

Yet, even if the flux proves temporary, there has been a seismic momentum shift in recent weeks.

A new buoyancy has invaded Old Trafford even as gravity inflicts its will on Jurgen Klopp's long-time weightless wonders.

Ahead of today's FA Cup collision, the odds-makers sense a changing of the guard: for the first time in recent memory, United (11/2) head Liverpool (15/2) in the title betting markets (both trail, odds-on favourite Manchester City).

So, let's try to make sense of the recent contrasting trajectories of the English game's twin bluebloods.

1. LIVERPOOL ARE ENTITLED TO CURSE VAR

No, not the dark lords of Stockley Park that so infuriate Klopp each time they rule Mo Salah a nose-hair offside or decline Sadio Mane's latest penalty appeal.

This VAR is an acronym for Virgil, Alexander-Arnold and Roberto. Remarkably, Liverpool have yet to concede more than a single goal in the 21 games since Van Dijk was mown down by Jordan Pickford's reckless hit and run.

Yet, the loss of the towering, imperious Dutchman is grievously wounding. The crisis management compelling Klopp to reimagine Fabinho and Jordan Henderson as centre-backs completely unhinges their midfield balance.

Alexander-Arnold, stripped of the big-brother security Van Dijk offers, has misplaced his world class credentials.

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

The assist king turning possession over 38 times against Southampton illustrates the scale of his January fall.

The warning lights signalling Roberto Firmino's decline stretch back to the summer restart.

With the Brazilian playmaker's sharp backslide in form, confidence and energy, the supply line to Salah and Mane is diminished, while with Firmino's possessions stolen in the final third nosediving from 1.11 to 0.42 per game, Liverpool's high press is noticeably less effective.

To cap it all, Firmino looks in need of a Valium when put through on goal.

2. POGBA'S DOCTOR JEKYLL SILENCES HIS MISTER HYDE

History cautions against issuing any definitive verdict on a Frenchman whose most obvious trait during his second United coming has been an ability to divide opinion.

Let's be kind and declare Pogba's body of work as patchy since his £89m return in the summer of 2016.

But an upsurge in form, the revealing of his sunny side with stunning strikes against West Ham, Burnley and Fulham, has been critical.

Maybe he is merely showcasing his talents in a fluttering eyelashes gesture toward Juventus; perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made a connection that was beyond Jose Mourinho; it could be that Pogba slips back into a pouting bystander long before the season has run its course.

But, for now, United have a switched-on World Cup winner forming a potent partnership with Bruno Fernandes. And the denizens of the padlocked Stretford End can dream.

3. INJURY, EXHAUSTION AND A TITLE HANGOVER DRAIN LIVERPOOL'S BATTERY

Klopp has sailed into the perfect storm of the fallout from three years of non-stop high-level competition, a largely unchanging starting XI and a medical staff compelled to launch their surge capacity emergency plan.

Liverpool have played an inhuman amount of intensely pressurised, every-game-matters football.

The physical investment required to reach successive Champions League finals along with a 38-game toe-to-toe duel with Man City, all followed by the draining emotional journey of a first league title in 30 years has taken an inevitable toll.

Throw in a truncated pre-season, the continued reliance on the same key players (fringe figures such as Minamino and Origi are simply not of the required standard) and a catalogue of high-profile injuries, and it is entirely natural that the petrol gauge warning light is flashing.

The Salah-Firmino-Mane warhead is armed almost every week (Diego Jota's arrival offered fresh momentum until his injury), combining for an otherworldly 159 goals over the previous three seasons.

They would not be flesh and blood if there was not a fall-off - though, even in their current trials, Salah leads the Golden Boot race and Liverpool, after more than seven goalless hours, remain the Premier League's top scorers.

As Gary Neville highlights, Manchester United's best teams endured significant fourth year blips. Both body and mind have a finite battery life.

The question is whether Liverpool can recharge before City (who they face in a fortnight and who themselves have been rocked by Kevin de Bruyne's latest injury setback) or even United disappear over the horizon.

4. THE CAVANI FACTOR

It is not Eric Cantona crossing the Pennines to announce himself as Manchester's new Caesar.

But the arrival of the 33-year-old Uruguayan - as with Bruno Fernandes a year earlier - brings with it a shock of energy and the warm breeze of a born winner.

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Edison Cavani has proved to be a great signing for Ole. Photo: Michael Regan/PA Wire.

Edison Cavani has proved to be a great signing for Ole. Photo: Michael Regan/PA Wire.

Edison Cavani has proved to be a great signing for Ole. Photo: Michael Regan/PA Wire.

A serial predator with 358 career goals to his name, the authentic fox-in-the-box United have lacked, a blur of movement in the Van Nistelrooy tradition, here is a diligent professional who, as he illustrated at Fulham, retains his serrated game-changing edge.

Cavani's aura is winching United to a higher plain, bringing the title finishing line into sharp focus, adding greater intrigue to a season plotting its own wild, unpredictable and compelling course.

It is truly mad, Ted.

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