The interview has barely started and already Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville are baiting one another.

"Obviously Liverpool fans are portraying United fans as getting carried away," says former Manchester United defender Neville.

"I genuinely do not know any United fan who is getting carried away. We are just having a four-day ball, basically. An unexpected party we did not think would happen."

"What a headline!" interjects Liverpool legend Carragher immediately. "They are having a party! There is your headline. One of the biggest clubs in the world having a party because they are top of the league after 17 games! Do we need to carry on?"

Carry on, though, they do. And for the next hour, the Sky Sports duo - taking part in a virtual roundtable discussion with the ECHO and other news outlets - hold fort looking ahead to Sunday's top-of-the-table clash at Anfield between the clubs where they spent their careers.

What soon becomes crystal clear is their love of the game, a deep knowledge garnered from a combined 35 years playing in the Premier League, and a healthy respect between the North West rivals.

Oh, and their ability to wind up each other up something rotten.

“We are just having a four-day lockdown party at Liverpool’s expense and it is fantastic," continues Neville. "There is no expectation that Man Utd will win the league yet. I don’t think anyone is thinking that. Even now.

"If Man United go to Anfield, and then go to Arsenal and then Fulham and win those three games, then it would get exciting.

"But when I look at City and Liverpool, I still don’t think United are going to win the league, but the fact we are thinking about it and talking about it and looking at a league table they are top of is a big leap forward."

Enough of a leap to have Carragher worried? It seems not.

"I don’t think worried is the right word at this stage," he says. "There’s so long to go. We are getting to the middle end of January when you’re normally well into the second half of the season but we’re not even halfway through the season.

"With United, there’s no doubt they’ve improved and I think Bruno Fernandes has been a massive change or them, but I don’t think they’ve massively improved. I think Liverpool and City have dropped off.

"I think if Liverpool and City get to anywhere near where they’ve been in the last couple of years in the second half of the season I think that will make it difficult for United.

"This season is unbelievable, in a good way. So many teams, you tend to write them off after a couple of defeats on the bounce and then they win a couple of games and they’re back up there.

"It’s brilliant for the league - it’s just how long it’s going to say like that. Obviously I hope Liverpool come out on top. But I think it has the making of an unbelievable second half of the season, if it stays this tight."

"That’s the headline," chimes in Neville. "'Sky Sports' Jamie Carragher welcomes United’s challenge!"

That challenge has seen Old Trafford side move three points clear at the Premier League summit, helped by Liverpool taking just one point from their last three games while suddenly struggling to find the target.

And for Carragher, there's a clear if not immediately obvious reason.

"People talk about missing Virgil van Dijk defensively but they haven’t missed him defensively really, when you look at the record," says the ex-Liverpool centre-back.

"In terms of building from the back and starting the attack, Liverpool mixed it up really well, playing different balls last season.

"The football at the moment just feels a bit slower I would say and I think a lot of that is to do with the build-up from the back. Van Dijk is unique in being a great defender and (having) his ability on the ball. Thiago will come in now and should make a difference.

"Compared to Van Dijk he is higher up the pitch but there were signs when he came on against Newcastle and signs against Aston Villa – even thought that was against kids – with the passes he’s making, being penetrative rather than going sideways in midfield.

"The thing that gives me confidence going into this game is that Liverpool have won almost every big game they’ve played this season."

Traditionally the biggest game of the campaign, there will be an eerie and unique atmosphere with this the first time the meeting of England's two most successful clubs has taken place behind closed doors.

"Going to Anfield with a crowd for a United team is the ultimate test in the Premier League and always will be," says Neville. "So going there without one is a completely different proposition. You would have to think that can only suit United in terms of the noise that would normally be there…”

Carragher interrupts: “So you might have to attack, then?”

“What Jamie seems to be wanting from this game," continues Neville, "is for United to go gung-ho and attack like mad so his mob can counter-attack.

"I would be delighted for it to be 0-0 with half hour to go. It would be madness to over-commit against this Liverpool team."

“He fancies United!” goads Carragher, before Neville, undeterred, adds: "I think Liverpool are favourites. My point is United’s best chance is not to go gung-ho like he wants us to.”

The pair have increasingly ribbed each other - along with rival fans - over social media in recent weeks, prompting the ECHO, when asking which team would be most under pressure this weekend, to also enquire whether a Liverpool win would move Jurgen Klopp's side top or joint top.

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Neville laughs. “The worst thing that can happen on Sunday is that United end up joint top of the league!" he says. "It’s no problem!

“That’s why I’ve enjoyed the last couple of weeks. It just seems as though the Liverpool fans are just biting a little bit – for no reason!

“If Manchester United win at Anfield on Sunday then it will be a pretty uncomfortable place for Jurgen Klopp and his players because they’ll be thinking ‘what’s happening'?

"We are six points behind United, City will go ahead of us’ and they’ll be looking up from down there thinking ‘what’s going on?’.

“There definitely is more pressure on Liverpool on Sunday.

“But what I would say is about champion teams... City a couple of weeks ago away at Chelsea, they had the cancellation earlier in the week, they had the COVID issues with Jesus, Walker, Torres and Ederson, and that’s when they stepped up.

“That Sunday they stepped up and it was like ‘woah’. City grabbed hold of their season at that point, I think. Then they went on to beat United in the League Cup semi-final.

“I always remember Sir Alex (Ferguson), at some point in the season he used to say ‘stop messing around now, this is it now, you’ve had enough of the nonsense stuff’ - I can hear him saying it - ‘you’ve had enough of the nonsense, now this is the time’.

“Quite often we would step up and put a performance when we really needed to. I would say that’s the moment Liverpool are at."

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Carragher agrees.

"I do expect a big performance from Liverpool," he says.

"If Liverpool play how I feel they're going to play, on the back of a bit of time between this game, on the back of poor performances, everyone talking about United, City, other teams, as champions, I feel they'll want to make their statement.

"And if they play at their best like they have done in the big games then that should be enough."

Watch Liverpool v Manchester United exclusively live on Sky Sports and NOW TV at 4.30pm.