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What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, Manchester United slunk away from Anfield after a 2-0 defeat saw them fall 30 points behind Liverpool and kept their arch rivals on course for a first title in 30 years.

On Sunday, two days shy of a year since that defeat, United return there, top of the Premier League, three points ahead of Liverpool, with a first title in eight years firmly in their sights.

It is a remarkable turnaround, not least because after six games United were down in 15th place with just seven points, their worst start since the ill-fated season under David Moyes.

But an unbeaten 11-game run in the Premier League, including nine wins, sees United top in January for the first time since 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson signed off with their last title.

United can prove they are finally back with a win at Anfield
(Image: Manchester United via Getty Imag)

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United are mentally tougher, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has far more accomplished personnel at his disposal than he did a year ago at Anfield and greater strength in depth.

Included in his starting line-up to face Jurgen Klopp’s side a year ago were Andreas Pereira – now on loan at Lazio – and Dan James, both in the side out of necessity, rather than merit.

Now Solskjaer has Bruno Fernandes and Edinson Cavani, significant upgrades, to occupy those positions, while Eric Bailly’s return to fitness has strengthened the defence.

Against that backdrop, despite Solskjaer’s efforts to play down their chances, United are genuine title contenders, with a squad and winning mindset that suggests they can push all the way this season.

“I think this kind of win shows we’re ready to compete for the title,” said midfielder Nemanja Matic after Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Burnley, which took United top.

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“Now let’s see on Sunday against Liverpool. It’s the biggest derby in England.

“We go there to compete with them and see where we are against one of the best teams in the league. I think we’re ready.

“We’ve played 17 games and we’re top of the table. That shows something,

“We didn’t play five or six games, then you can say maybe it’s lucky. But after 17 games, definitely it’s not lucky, definitely there’s quality.”

Central to United’s resurgence in recent weeks has been Paul Pogba, so often a source of frustration, but who has provided a timely reminder of his worth.

Pogba scored the winner at Burnley and has made himself undroppable, Solskjaer’s handling of him a masterclass in man-management since the midfielder’s agent, Mino Raiola, claimed last month that his client wanted to quit United.

“I’ve always said Paul is a big, big player for us,” said Solskajer.

“He’s a good character in the dressing-room, he’s always one that the lads look to.

“He’s a world champion and we’re seeing the best of Paul at the moment.

“He’s getting better and better every game. He’s been injured, he’s had Covid and it’s just natural that he needed some time to get fit.”

On Sunday, Solskjaer will need Pogba and all of his players to be at their best for the most searching examination of their title credentials against Jurgen Klopp’s champions.

Leaving Anfield with their lead intact or extended would provide conclusive proof United are finally back, after years of mediocrity and soul-searching in the post-Ferguson era.