Manchester United fear protesting supporters will try and prevent players from leaving their hotel and then target the team bus tomorrow night in an attempt to force the postponement of their Premier League meeting with Liverpool for the second time in 11 days.
The re-arranged fixture is the subject of intense security measures after supporters broke into the ground and forced the cancellation of the original game.
That will make it virtually impossible for any fans protesting against the club’s owners, the Glazer family, to approach the ground, let alone force entry.
Instead, fans are intent on pursuing the tactic of preventing the United team bus from reaching Old Trafford before kick-off.
That approach proved successful last week, with supporters blocking the bus and preventing it from leaving the Lowry Hotel, the squad’s usual pre-match meeting place, in the city centre.
United changed their pre-match plans before Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Leicester and kept their new location a closely-guarded secret having attempted to draw a veil of secrecy over their plans this week.
Internal security meetings - normally routine, relaxed affairs - have been pared down to a minimum number, with only a handful of individuals allowed to attend on a “need-to-know” basis.
United have even discussed the prospect of parking “decoy” buses at hotels in an effort to mis-direct supporters who are intent on disrupting the game.
Supporters, meanwhile, have been calling city-centre hotels in an attempt to discover the base the team is using.
However, it is far from certain whether the team will use a hotel at all and it is believed that ahead of the Leicester game players remained at their homes and met prior to travelling to the stadium en masse on Tuesday afternoon.
Fans’ move to target players’ transport has come after the huge police reaction to the stormy scenes that accompanied the first game, and ended with six police officers suffering injuries and one requiring hospital treatment for facial wounds.
The authorities were caught hugely unprepared on that occasion and have strengthened their operations considerably, with a ring of steel erected around the stadium ahead of the game with Leicester.
There were no protests ahead of that fixture with supporters' pressure groups always intending to target the re-scheduled Liverpool game, given its high profile internationally and the impact made by the original postponement, particularly in the Glazers’ native United States.
Social media platforms and fans’ forums were active yesterday with talk of demonstrations, with the intention of gaining similar publicity for their anti-Glazer sentiment by causing another cancellation.
Asked whether he was concerned by the prospect of a second major protest, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said: "My job is for Man United and my concern is the Man United fans - what they think about my team, what they want from my team and that we come together as one and show what Man United is."
Scaled up security measures included the area around the Munich tunnel, where fans gained access into the stadium before the Liverpool match, which has been barricaded off by three rows of steel barriers and a 10-foot high security wall.
One potential problem for the club, though, is that Old Trafford is naturally penned in by a railway line on one side of the ground, and the Bridgewater Canal on the other, leaving only two potential entry routes from the surrounding areas which could be targeted by protestors.
These access points available to the ground by vehicles were heavily manned by lines of stewards on Tuesday, with police riot vans also in attendance.
The extra policing will be paid for out of public money, with all football clubs currently required only to pay for police deployed inside stadia.
A spokesman for Greater Manchester Police said: "GMP has significant experience in policing public demonstrations and live events, and officers liaise with local football clubs as well as the GM Safety Advisory Group on a regular basis to ensure that football fixtures pass with as little disruption as possible.
"Each operation is thoroughly planned based on the intelligence and information we have available so that we can ensure that everyone in attendance, the local community and our officers are safe so that everyone can enjoy the game.
"We have reviewed our approach again following the events of last weekend and planned appropriate resourcing to ensure the safety of all those present at this weekend and next week's fixtures."
Even if United manage to negotiate the game without incident, police also face a potential headache next Tuesday when United complete their home Premier League season with the visit of Fulham.
The relaxation of restrictions around Covid-19 protocols will see 10,000 supporters allowed to attend that fixture, adding to the complications of policing that match and avoiding further crowd unrest. And fans who obtain tickets for that game have been told that unless they arrive at Old Trafford in an allotted time slot given to them in advance then they could be refused access to the stadium.
In the club’s message to season ticket holders sent out today, fans are told they will have to arrive “significantly” earlier than the 6pm kick-off time, raising the prospect of some of them having to wait long periods in the stadium. The club said: “Entry may be refused if you seek entry outside of this time period.”
Fans will be allowed to leave before the final whistle but once the game has finished they will leave the ground row by row to avoid overcrowding on the concourses. Supporters have also been warned that if the ball is kicked into the stand they must not throw it back to maintain the integrity of the players' Covid bubble while the code of conduct issued by the ticket office also warned, “Inconsiderate, reckless or anti-social behaviour by anyone visiting Old Trafford will not be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, Solskjaer brushed aside concerns over the integrity of the top-four race being compromised after he fielded a severely weakened team in the defeat against Leicester in order to save his first-team players for a match that Jurgen Klopp’s team need to win for their Champions League qualification hopes.
“My job is Man United and my concern is the Man United fans, what they think about my team, what they want from my team and that we come together as one and show what Man United is,” said Solskjaer.
“There’ll be changes, of course, but many of the players that played against Leicester did really well, so they're in contention as well. It's about managing the squad now, building momentum and confidence, making sure we get enough points to get second and then going into the final confident.”