After last season’s drama – right around this time of year, when Luis Suárez refused to shake Patrice Evra’s hand, and Kenny Dalglish lost the run of himself – this fixture was always going to feel relatively low key. Not that a Manchester United – Liverpool match is anything but pumped-up, but there is, as ever, an ebb and flow of tension between these clubs. For once the animosity is on the downside.
Indeed, such is the apparent lack of relative antipathy ahead of Sunday’s clash that rival fans may even collude in action against high ticket prices. Few would have believed it a year ago, with shake-gate tension palpable and the fourth estate stoking the fires of anger. It is, some might say, a measure of just how irrelevant Liverpool has become, off-the-field drama aside.
Still, with the Scousers in something approaching decent form, and the Uruguayan now finding the net where row Z was once frequented, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is in for a genuine test at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon. Not least because of the difficulty the Scot is still having in coaching his team towards a clean sheet or few.
Last weekend’s FA Cup fixture is a case in point, with United conceding two hugely sloppy goals; captain Nemanja Vidić at least partially to blame for the brace of James Collins headers.
And it is to Suárez that the Scot’s attention turns – the “controversial” striker having garnered more mixed headlines than any other player in the Premier League over the past year.
“I don’t know whether he enjoys [the controversy], but it is something we hope we don’t suffer from ourselves,” said Ferguson of the striker who won last weekend’s FA Cup tie against Mansfield Town despite handling in the build-up to Liverpool’s second goal.
“I never saw the game last Sunday, so it is difficult to say whether it was a deliberate handball. You will always support your own player, I don’t think that is surprising from Brendan. I have done it myself. It is just part of your loyalty to the player and protection for them too.
“I hope we don’t suffer from some of the decisions that have gone his way. We want it to be a good game on Sunday.”
Whatever happens on the pitch there is likely to be little controversy in Ferguson’s team selection, although changes from last weekend’s FA Cup side are inevitable. Top goalscorer Robin van Persie returns to the starting line-up, while Ferguson will deploy Rafael da Silva and Antonio Valencia in their more natural positions.
It is one of several key tactical and personnel decisions to be made ahead of the lunchtime clash. Meanwhile, Anderson and Nani will return to the match-day squad.
“I’m hoping Wayne will start training today actually, in which case he won’t be far away,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“I don’t think it’s a big issue but it will help him along. The injury is quite straightforward so if he starts today we should have him available for Wednesday’s game. Nani’s back in training and will be in the squad on Sunday. Phil Jones is back, although I think Wednesday is more likely for him. Anderson has been back training for 10 days so he’ll be in the squad on Sunday.
“All in all, we’re in a healthy situation. How long it will last I don’t know, but it’s good to have them back.”
Few will be surprised if Rooney makes the United bench given the manager’s penchant for pulling off a surprise or two in United’s biggest games. Meanwhile, Ferguson is likely to choose between Vidić and Ferdinand, rather than deploy the pair together against in-form Suarez. The latter may be the sensible choice following Vidić’s rusty performance at Upton Park last weekend.
Despite the mediocrity on show in London’s east end – van Persie’s wonder-goal aside – United starts heavy favourites in a match that still resonates with fans, even if the two giants of the English game no longer compete for the same glories. There is, after all, ample firepower available to Ferguson even without Rooney, while Liverpool continues to blow more cold than hot this season.
“I would say it is the fixture we look forward to first,” said veteran defender Rio Ferdinand.
“The rivalry runs deep. Liverpool have not been up there fighting for the championship but the fans and the players are well versed in what this means to us as a club. I always enjoy playing against Liverpool, either at Anfield or Old Trafford. Hopefully this is another good, exciting and winning occasion for us.
“You look back over the years and see what has gone on before I came to the club. Whilst I have been here there have been loads of great moments. You just want to add your name and be a part of a team that adds to that long list of events that have gone on.”
Recent history is on United’s side too. Ferguson’s side has secured six victories in the past 10 fixtures between these sides, while van Persie has scored five goals in his last six matches against Liverpool. Just a few data points in more than two decades of Scouse Premier League misery – a modern tale of woe that has relegated the 18-times English champions to the domestic game’s middle-ranks.
“The club at the moment is a hell of a challenge because they haven’t won the league for 20 years. It is a long time,” adds Ferguson.
“It is difficult to measure any Liverpool side at the moment with any Liverpool side of the past. I think it is terrific if the Liverpool fans are prepared to be patient because it is going to require patience. It is a long road back to what they used to be.”
If ever, many United supporters will counter. After all, Liverpool is now a club that drives just over half United’s revenue – a performance that has not changed in five years.
Manchester United v Liverpool – Premier League, Old Trafford – Sunday 13 January 1.30pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Kagawa, Young; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Jones, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Carrick, Scholes, Fletcher, Anderson, Nani, Welbeck, Powell, Macheda, Giggs, Hernández, Rooney
Liverpool (4-3-3): Reina; Wisdom, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson; Lucas, Shelvey, Gerrard; Downing, Suárez, Sterling. Subs from: Doni, Jones, Coates, Carragher, Assaidi, Pacheco, Henderson, Allen, Borini, Suso, Sturridge
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant referees: M Mullarkey, D Cann
Fourth official: J Moss
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, United 3, Draw 1
Overall: United 73, Liverpool 62, Draw 51
- van Persie continues to grab all the headlines as Premier League top goalscorer – his 16 strikes coming from 69 attempts at a 57 per cent conversion ratio;
- Hernández boasts a goal-per-minute ratio to rival almost anyone in the league – the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index records the Mexican finisher finding the net once every 82.3 minutes this season;
- Patrice Evra continues to defy the critics this season, with only Michael Carrick bettering a total of 436 passes completed in the opponent’s half;
- Valencia may not be in the finest form, but the Ecuadorian has delivered 43 crosses this season according to the Index;
- Tom Cleverley has brought plenty of energy to United’s midfield – he covered an impressive 6.98 miles against Wigan Athletic a fortnight ago;
- Suárez is three goals behind van Persie in the race for the golden boot, but the Uruguayan has been the busier of the two in front of goal, hitting the target 58 times to the Dutchman’s 39;
- Unsurprisingly, the Uruguayan has given away more fouls than any other Liverpool player with 29 this season;
- Steven Gerrard’s time at the top may be on the wane, but the Liverpool captain has provided nine assists and 626 successful passes this season;
- Right-back Glen Johnson has successfully completed more tackles than any other Liverpool player with 32, while fellow defender Martin Skrtel has achieved a squad-high 35 clearances.