Amid the tension and media interest generated by Luis Suárez’ racial abuse of Patrice Evra in October fans could be forgiven for losing sight of the sideshow this weekend: the fight for a place in the last 16 of the world’s oldest cup competition. Yet, the simmering hatred ingrained into Manchester United’s rivalry with Liverpool has an added dimension this weekend, with the visitors’ first outing at Anfield since the Uruguayan’s transgression in October. It makes for a fascinating FA Cup fourth round tie; one in which the subplot still threatens to grab all the headlines.
Sir Alex Ferguson may be unwilling to talk about Evra – in public at least – but there is little doubt that Liverpool’s actions in both vociferously defending Suárez, and fingering Evra for the Football Association’s eight match ban of the striker, has irked the Scot. Ferguson’s aggressive dismissal of media questioning on Friday is all the tell any supporters need.
It is not as though one has to look far beneath the surface to uncover the deep emotions that this tie has always uncovered. Mutual resentment did not require Suárez’ actions to bubble up from beneath the surface, and spill over the edge from rivalry to hate. Yet, October has certainly catalyzed the process; acting as a reference point for one of football’s most divisive encounters.
Will hate spill over into something more on Saturday? Certainly with tensions running so high both Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish were circumspect in their comments on Friday. Despite this the damage has surely already been done by the Anfield club: Evra, United’s captain, can expect to ride the gauntlet of abuse on Saturday. None of it is likely to phase Senegalese-born Evra.
Meanwhile, United supporters, just over 5,000 of them, were urged to be “loud and witty” but no more by Ferguson. Travelling fans will need every ounce of restraint in an encounter that needs no kindling.
Supporters need only recall the last occasion United last visited Anfield in the FA Cup when Alan Smith snapped is right leg in two places, and home fans saw fit to charge the striker’s ambulance. It was no isolated incident in a long history of dark moments between these two clubs.
There is a football match, of course, and if Ferguson’s men are to secure the FA Cup for the first time since 2004 they will have to both overcome the odds and history. Indeed, with up to 11 players injured, Ferguson’s men must win the hard way if United is to beat Liverpool at Anfield for the first time in almost five years.
“It’s a massive game for both clubs. There’s a tremendous profile around it,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.
“As Steven Gerrard said yesterday, there is a responsibility on the players to behave properly and also both sets of fans. We want to make sure we are talking about the game, nothing else. It is something you want to look forward to. That is what I intend to do.
“I always think home draws make you favourite. In my time there haven’t been many cup ties between the clubs. It’s one to look forward to and I think the players will follow that.”
Ferguson would not be drawn on Evra’s role, although there was never any question of the French defender being left out of United’s side on Saturday. Indeed, Ferguson has steadfastly refused to discuss the affair, even in the wake of the FA Regulatory Commission’s damning indictment of Suárez.
Instead, Ferguson was keen to talk up supporters’ responsibility on Saturday, both for maintaining order in a testing atmosphere and for driving United towards victory.
“Our fans were terrific there this season. The issue of clubs reducing the number of tickets for our supporters has been going on for quite a while now. It has become a convenient way of selling their hospitality. But the stewards have a difficult enough job as it is. We should be helping.”
Whatever the distractions United must win a tie without a team of absentees. Long-term injury victims Tom Cleverley, Nemanja Vidić, Darren Fletcher and Michael Owen are joined on the sidelines by a plethora of senior pros. Ashley Young, although back in training, is not ready to take part, while Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand will not be risked.
Meanwhile, United waits on news of winger Nani’s injury, with the club fearing a broken metatarsal bone. Wayne Rooney, who hobbled away from United’s victory at Arsenal last week, may not be risked, and Michael Carrick faces a late test.
Despite the absentees Ferguson’s men head into the tie with one of England’s most in-form forwards in Danny Welbeck. The once gangly kid has grown into a Premier League striker of the highest class over the past 18 months. United will surely need the Longsight-born forward to be at his dynamic best on Saturday.
No wonder Ferguson singled out the 21-year-old England international for praise.
“We were always aware of Danny Welbeck’s ability as a kid,” added Sir Alex on Friday.
“It was just a matter of waiting for Danny to develop into a man and we’re seeing the signs now. He has a great physique but I think there’s still more to come. I don’t think he’s finished growing yet. Our stats show there’s still a bit to do before he becomes a complete adult in a physical sense. He has a good attitude but then he should – he’s a young player with an opportunity at Manchester United.”
Should Rooney not make the tie as seems increasingly likely – the Scouser has not trained all week – Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández will compete for a place along side the United youngster. With so many injuries Ferguson’s back-four picks itself, although the Scot must choose between Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Paul Scholes in central midfield.
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Dalglish will be without Suárez, with the Uruguayan serving the sixth of an eight match ban. Jay Spearing may return to the squad, although Dalglish is unlikely to make many changes from the 11 that knocked Manchester City out of the Carling Cup on Wednesday.
Yet, despite Liverpool’s mixed recent form the Anfield side has not yet lost at home this season. Dalglish’s side has recorded five wins and eight draws at Anfield, although the side is struggling to keep in touch with the top four. Yet, there can be no room for any doubt that Liverpool’s players will up the mediocre level of commitment displayed, for example, in the recent defeat to Bolton Wanderers. Hostility from the stands will surely be met by passion on the pitch.
It is incumbent on Ferguson’s men to quieten both.
Liverpool versus Manchester United, FA Cup fourth round, Anfield, Saturday 28 January 2012, 12.45pm.
Liverpool (4-5-1): Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Henderson, Spearing, Adam, Gerrard, Downing; Carroll. Subs from: Doni, Bellamy, Kuyt, Kelly, Coates, Rodríguez, Carragher, Aurélio, Shelvey, Flanagan.
United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Park; Hernandez, Welbeck. Subs from: De Gea, Fryers, Cole, Fabio, Lingard, Keane, Scholes, Berbatov.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey & Stuart Burt
Fourth Official: Howard Webb