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Mourinho and Manchester United need to lay down marker against Liverpool

It is too early to judge Manchester United's season.

It could yet end with a Champions League and FA Cup double -- an upgrade on the Europa League and League Cup won last year. In that scenario -- albeit fairly unlikely -- there could not be an argument that Jose Mourinho's second season in charge had been a success.

We are, though, getting to a point where it will be possible to pass judgement on their Premier League campaign.

With nine games to go, the title has already gone, destined to spend at least 12 months at the Etihad with Manchester City. With a gap of 16 points, it is a question of when, not if. That in itself will be a disappointment to Mourinho.

The aim this season was to win it, and not just because he tends to win championships in his second year. It is always the priority at Old Trafford. At the very least, he will have wanted to mount a credible challenge. In some ways they have after spending most of the season closer to City than anyone else. But, then, they haven't really threatened to win it since the derby defeat at Old Trafford in December. Six months is a long victory lap for Pep Guardiola's side.

It will mean little to Mourinho, a man who measures success in silver, but his team have made progress. Last season they finished sixth with 69 points, 18 wins having scored 54 goals. The dramatic 3-2 over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Monday night took this season's numbers to 19 wins and 62 points. Chris Smalling's goal in the second half took United's league tally for the season to 54. By the end of the game, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic had bumped it up to 56.

United need nine points and nine goals to beat their best totals since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. They are also on course for their highest finish since Ferguson signed off with the title.

For a club with the history of United's, it is not worthy of any kind of celebration, but it is a step forward. And after finishing seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth in the last four seasons, it is not something to be sniffed at.

Mourinho's goal for the remaining nine weeks of the campaign is to ensure Champions League League football for next season and, if possible, finish second.

But he has admitted his eyes are already on next year. And with that in mind, Liverpool's visit to Old Trafford this weekend because doubly important. It is Liverpool at Old Trafford so it is important anyway.

With the two teams separated by one place and two points in the table, it is a chance to open up some distance between second and third and remove any lingering doubts about finishing in the top four.

Manchester United face Liverpool this Saturday with both sides with an eye on second place.

But there is also an opportunity to make a statement ahead of next season.

Gary Neville says United should be "preparing now" for the next title tilt.

"Next season will be Jose's third season," said the Sky Sports pundit. "You would think in his mind, and in everyone's minds, that he has to win it next season."

Liverpool, bolstered Mohamed Salah's goals and the January signing of Virgil van Dijk and the one team to beat Manchester City in the league this season, will fancy their chances, too.

Sources have told ESPN FC that Mourinho does not expect to do much transfer business in the summer. It is likely he will sign a central midfielder and possibly another defender, while fringe players like Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind could leave.

But after the January arrival of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal, Mourinho has been adamant he will not sign another attacker even if, as expected, Zlatan Ibrahimovic heads to the United States.

It means the players already at Old Trafford will be expected to take another step forward. With Sanchez, Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and David De Gea in the squad, there is no reason why they shouldn't win the title next season.

A win over Liverpool would go some way to showing they are capable of bridging the considerable gap to Manchester City by this time next year. The same goes for the visit to the Etihad Stadium on Apr. 7.

Whether United's season ends up as a success or not will be decided in competitions other than the Premier League.

In the context of this campaign three points against Liverpool on Saturday does not mean a great deal -- other than the obvious bragging rights that come with a win over a rival. Progress in the league this season has already been assured. Mourinho, though, will be looking for signs that there is more to come.

Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.

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