Manchester United versus Liverpool is, says Sir Alex Ferguson, the biggest fixture of the season. Few fans will disagree. Despite Liverpool’s failures over the past 20 years there is still something highly evocative about the fixture, from the historical rivalry between these old Lancashire towns, to the genuine animosity between managers Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish. There will be little love lost as United visits Anfield Saturday lunchtime.
It is a game all about intensity of the encounter and history of the event, even if the gulf between the clubs has grown significantly. Now a cliché, of course, but on the pitch Liverpool has been well and truly “knocked off their perch,” with United claiming a 19th domestic championship last season. That Liverpool has only rarely challenged for the title over the past two decades says much for the huge gap that has developed between the clubs.
United’s larger support, better team and greater success on the pitch has eroded the rivalry for trophies perhaps but not that between supporters, with the usual hostile Anfield atmosphere expected.
“I think the fans play a part, there is no doubt about that,” said Ferguson of the fixture between England’s two giants of the game.
“In my time we’ve had nine players sent off there which is unusual for Manchester United so that is all down to the atmosphere that can be created there. Although things may change in the next few years with Manchester City, whether the derby game can be equal to Manchester United-Liverpool game, because I’ve always considered it to be the game of the season in English football and at the moment I think it remains that.
“I think they’re the two most successful clubs in England historically and also from an initial point of view when industry changed and they opened the ship canal. It had a lot to do with the history of both cities and both clubs. It’s an inherent situation. It’s been here since I came.
“I think both clubs need each other. The history both clubs have should be appreciated by both sets of fans and that’s sometimes annoying when I hear silly chants about Munich and Hillsborough, I don’t think it does either club any good at all because without each other it wouldn’t be the English league.
“The history of both clubs should be respected and hopefully we can see that because it’s fantastic for fans to see these games – the rivalry, great footballers, the intensity… to me it’s the game of the season.”
United heads into the fixture welcoming back key players from injury, including influential captain Nemanja Vidic, who completed 90 minutes of Serbia’s Euro 2012 qualification defeat in midweek. However, midfielder Tom Cleverley isn’t ready to make the bench, although Chris Smalling may be fit for the 236th tie between the sides.
“The big question mark is whether Vidic is ready for the game tomorrow,” Ferguson added.
“He’s certainly had his first game for Serbia on Tuesday, played a full game, so it’s certainly a consideration because he’s such a good competitor. He came in yesterday and felt OK. But the Liverpool game is such an intense, draining game that you want everybody to be 100 percent so it maybe more down to how he feels himself really.
“Jonny Evans’s form has been absolutely brilliant so I don’t have any real concerns about who I play because they’re all playing well.”
Elsewhere Ferguson has a choice to make in central midfield, even without Cleverley’s return. Darren Fletcher completed 90 minutes for Scotland against Spain in the week despite overcoming flu, while Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Anderson will all compete for a spot in central areas. Certainly Anderson, the Brazilian who started the season so well but has failed to impress in recent matches, is due a decent performance.
Meanwhile, Ferguson must choose whether to rush Javier Hernández back from international duty in South American to partner the embattled Wayne Rooney in attack.
Ferguson will also boast a plethora of choices at right-back, even if Smalling fails to make the fixture. Phil Jones came through England’s fixture in Montenegro, while Fabio da Silva is fit after appearing for Brazil. Ferguson confirmed that the youngster’s brother Rafael is back in training, while there are no fresh injuries resulting from the past week’s international fixtures.
Dalglish, meanwhile, can boast a fully fit squad including, in Luis Suarez, a striker who has impressed with moments of brilliance this season. That said, much like his team, the Uruguayan suffers from inconsistency. Behind the Scouse-friendly headlines the statistics bear witness to a striker that has some way to go before the Liverpool-driven comparisons with Lionel Messi are realistic.
Whether the fixture survives without controversy is another matter altogether. Indeed, the United manager may have genuine concerns about referee Andre Marriner, who sent off Nemanja Vidic in 2009. This is the same official who failed to dismiss Gerrard despite the Liverpool captain audibly swearing at the West Midlands-based referee and raising a double-fingered salute. Ferguson will hope that Marriner is far stronger in the face of a hostile atmosphere than in the past.
In the end, however, United’s result at Anfield will depend far more on Ferguson’s outfit performing better than in the last three visits. Those three Liverpool victories is the Anfield club’s best run at home against United since nine in a row between 1972 and 1979.
“We have not played as well as we should have [at Anfield],” Rio Ferdinand told ManUtd.com
“We have given away some soft goals here and there. Over the first seven years I was at this club, we had a really good record against Liverpool, home and away. A lot of those victories were based around defending well as a team – playing collectively, not as individuals. If we do that at the weekend, I am confident we can get a good result.”
The few United supporters allocated a ticket for the fixture expect nothing less.
Liverpool v Manchester United, Premier League, Anfield, 12.45pm, 14 October 2011.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Kelly, Reina; Carragher, Škrtel, Enrique; Kuyt, Lucas, Gerrard, Downing; Suarez, Carroll. Subs from: Doni, Johnson, Agger, Aurélio, Coates, Wilson, Flanagan, Robinson, Henderson, Rodríguez, Spearing, Adam, Bellamy, Coady, Sterling.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Fletcher, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Amos, Fabio, Pogba, Valencia, Carrick, Diouf, Giggs, Park, Welbeck, Berbatov, Owen.
- United retains four players in the top 10 in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index. Rooney is in top spot, with midfielders Anderson and Ashley Young in third and fourth respectively
- Rooney is the Premier League’s top goal scorer with nine goals this season from 32 attempts at goal, with 59 per cent on target
- Nani is United’s top passer with 185 passes this season and is also the Premier League’s top dribbler having completed 32 dribbles, and 29 crosses this season
- Young, meanwhile, has completed 30 dribbles and delivered 25 crosses.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: S Ledger, M McDonough
Fourth Official: P Dowd