“I can’t stand Liverpool, I can’t stand Liverpool people, I can’t stand anything to do with them,” Gary Neville once noted of Manchester United’s opponents this Sunday. It is a sentiment that resonates with many. And so often in the past this game would have been the most important on the football calendar; two North West giants toe-to-toe in another Cup final or with a League title on the line. It is a very different time for English football’s greatest clubs. Read More
“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.”
It was, as ever, Sir Alex Ferguson’s defiance in the face of media criticism that elicited the Scot’s best and most memorable invective. “And you can print that,” was the appendage that inspired a thousand banners.
Each has enjoyed the swing of contrasting fortune this season. While Manchester United has spent much of the post-autumn period in the top four, at one point losing just twice in more than 20 games, it is Liverpool’s late run that threatens to usurp Louis van Gaal’s side in the race for European football. Indeed, Sunday’s 192nd fixture between these side could prove critical in the in the hunt for a place among the continent’s élite.
It is the hosts that start favourites on Sunday, with Brendan Rodgers’ outfit having taken 33 points from a possible 39 since United beat the Merseysiders 3-0 at Old Trafford in December. That result prompted a radical shift in Rodgers’ tactical thinking: a switch to the 3-4-2-1 system that has not always served Van Gaal well this season. Still, it is that attacking outlook has brought Liverpool eight victories from the past 10 matches. The best form in the Premier League.
United’s results, by contrast, have largely outstripped performances since that December fixture, albeit until Van Gaal’s side thumped Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. Painful defeats to Southampton and Swansea City over the past 10 matches have offered rivals a leg-up in the pursuit Champions League qualification; United’s disjointed performances stretch further than two reverses.
Van Gaal’s side does at least hold a touch of momentum after coasting to victory over Spurs through a trio of first half strikes. It was a performance that United must build on, says the Dutchman, if Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal are not to pull ahead in the “rat race” for third and fourth place. Not least because the Londoners and United’s cross-town rivals each won over the weekend.
“We have to confirm it against Liverpool,” said Van Gaal on Friday, “because when we can confirm it then we can show that we are there. But it is the most difficult ground for Manchester United I have heard.
“It shall last to the end and we are very close, but a win helps – it helps a lot. After a victory you need another victory to confirm what you have done. But Liverpool needs another victory after the loss against us. That was their last loss – in December – it’s unbelievable.”
United’s victory over Spurs came with yet another system, albeit one closer to a shape that suits the talent on hand. After deploying a three-man defence and diamond midfield at times this season, United’s five across midfield swamped the Londoners and offered Van Gaal’s side both strong defensive and attacking platforms on which to build.
Much to the surprise of many, Marouane Fellaini has become an part of that midfield – and a potential match-winner on Sunday. The Belgian cannot boast the technical finesse to control the tempo of United’s play nor the physicality to dominate midfield, but has proven an impactful attacking presence this season. It was Fellaini’s surprising burst of speed and clean left-footed strike gave United the lead against Tottenham last weekend.
“He has qualities that now, at this moment, he can contribute a lot,” said van Gaal of the £27 million player. “That is why he is playing. He also allows me to give balance to the team and that is important for a manager who is looking for balance. I think he has to play higher and higher up and Michael Carrick has to play deeper.
“I have said a lot of times he is a player that gives a solution for beating the pressing of the opponents. That’s also a contribution, he has more contributions but that is one of his contributions.”
The price is a style of football that is not always pleasing on the eye. Van Gaal’s side played more than 17 per cent of its passes long last weekend – more than any other side in the top seven.
On the pitch United welcome Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw back to the matchday squad, although it remains unlikely that either will start at Anfield. Meanwhile, striker Robin Van Persie began training this week, with the Dutchman at least a fortnight away from the first team.
Van Gaal could name a largely unchanged side, with both Ander Herrera and Juan Mata set to retain their places in the starting side, although Angel di Maria is available after serving a one-match suspension. In defence Daley Blind is set for another run at left-back, with Rojo and Shaw making the bench at best.
Meanwhile, the hosts welcome back Lucas Leiva for Sunday’s fixture after injury, with Mario Balotelli also available after the Italian missed last Monday’s victory over Swansea through illness.
Rodgers’ side lay 11th in the Premier League table after last December’s loss at Old Trafford, some 10 points behind United. That gap has been bridged, with victory for the home side on Sunday potentially swinging the competition for Champions League football next season with just eight games to go.
“There is still a long way to go, but there would be a psychological boost from winning this game,” said Rodgers.
“I think the psychology of being so far behind United and then clawing it back in a short period, and possibly going above United, will help the players. We had big pressure games against Tottenham, Southampton and Manchester City so we know we can cope with the pressure.”
The psychological side will be keenly felt in Van Gaal’s camp too. The Dutchman’s side bounced back decisively from FA Cup defeat to Arsenal. Should the Reds suffer a reverse in Sunday’s trip to Anfield confidence could take a more serious turn.
“The next game is the most important game – especially in this rat race, but of course I know it is our competitor too,” admits Van Gaal. “I know it is, for our fans, the enemy and it’s very important. I want to win against Liverpool again. It shall be very difficult.”
Difficult. And probably decisive.
Liverpool (3-4-2-1): Mignolet; Can, Skrtel, Sakho; Sterling, Henderson, Allen, Moreno; Lallana, Coutinho; Sturridge
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
Liverpool: Jones, Johnson, K Touré, Lovren, Gerrard, Lambert, Markovic, Balotelli
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, McNair, James, Shaw, Blackett, Valencia, Di Maria, Januzaj, Wilson, Falcao
Liverpool 64 – Draw 51 – United 76
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Liverpool 1-2 United
£1 bet club
1-2 @ 10/1
Running total: (-)£1.50
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There was, in truth, rare occasion over the past two decades that this fixture meant as much in competitive terms as it does to the state of local rivalry. While the passion has always burned bright for supporters, only twice during Sir Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford tenure did Liverpool challenge for the Premier League title. Then, with Manchester United’s period of dominance over, Liverpool last season blew its finest opportunity since 1990 to become English champions. Neither on Sunday’s competitors will compete for the title as the 2014/15 campaign draws to a close.
Yet, it is United that begins the 191st tie between England’s finest clubs on the up; Louis van Gaal’s outfit having won five times in succession over the past month to secure third place in the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers’ side, by contrast, has lost four of the past 10 while crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage. Indeed, for the first time in 18 months, it is Liverpool’s manager, not that of United, whom is under the greatest pressure.
The turnaround in United’s fortunes certainly came at a key time for Van Gaal after a mixed start to the campaign. Victories over Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Hull City, Stoke City and Southampton have come amid some indifferent performances, yet the quintet of games has brought 15 points and transformed the club’s season.
After the worst opening 10 games to a campaign since the mid-1980s, creeping optimism has begun to pervade Old Trafford for the first time since Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013. It leaves supporters and manager looking to fresh glory ahead – and to genuine belief that revenge is probably over a Liverpool side that twice defeated David Moyes’ embattled outfit last year.
Van Gaal has rarely expressed doubt since he joined the club after the summer’s World Cup, but the 62-year-old now has the results to put a positive spin on a challenging opening 15 games of the campaign.
“I dream for Manchester City’s place or Chelsea’s place, but now we have to live match for match and that is the most important thing,” Van Gaal told MUTV.
“We have to beat Liverpool which is more important than thinking about City or Chelsea. I still think Liverpool can fight for the top four places and still I have belief in that team because they have fantastic players.”
Crucially, perhaps, United enter the match with the fewest number injuries since Van Gaal joined the club in July. While record signing Angel di Maria is unavailable for another week and Chris Smalling out for a fortnight, the Dutchman boasts more options than at any other time this season.
Despite the respite from what has seemed like an unending succession of injuries Van Gaal has faced criticism for his training regime; not least because United has suffered 43 seperate injuries during the campaign – up to 10 first team players absent at any given time.
This week Ferguson’s former assistant, Mike Phelan, questioned both the “intensity of training” and methods brought to the club by Van Gaal over the past five months. “They’ve brought in new people with a different way of doing things,” claimed Phelan, who is now a coach at Championship side Norwich City.
Smalling’s absence means that Jonny Evans is likely to start alongside Marcos Rojo in central defence, while Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young will continue to act as emergency full-backs in a flat-back four. Rafael da Silva is back in training, but not yet match fit, while Luke Shaw is out until the new year.
In midfield Ander Herrera, Marouanne Fellaini and Michael Carrick could start in a diamond formation. Three from Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and James Wilson will form an attacking trio that aims to break down a Liverpool defence that has conceded 19 goals in the Premier League this season.
Of that quartet it is Van Persie who boasts the best record of late, having scored against Southampton and Hull in recent weeks. The Dutchman this week admitted to suffering a post-World Cup hangover, although in truth the 31-year-old has rarely excelled since Ferguson’s retirement.
“I’ve been feeling very well over the last couple of weeks,” said Van Persie. “Physically, I can make my runs over and over again. I had a feeling that it was coming. I can play 90 minutes easy and every time it gets easier. I could keep going in the last minutes and that’s what you want. Then the goals, assists, wins will come.”
Meanwhile, Rodgers is able to call on both Adam Lallana and Mario Ballotelli for the short journey to Old Trafford. Lallana has two cracked ribs, but is fit to play while Balotelli is back in training after missing six matches with a groin injury.
Still, for the first time in two and a half years as Liverpool manager serious questions are being raised about the Northern Irishman’s vision. After all, while Liverpool lost Luis Suarez in the summer, the club spent some £130 million in the market to compensate. That so much of that money went on players who are yet to impress at Anfield is unlikely to have gone unnoticed in the boardroom.
“Criticism comes with the territory when you don’t win games,” claimed Rodgers, whose side lies ninth in the Premier League.
“Football is very short term. The same people who are criticising me now were maybe saying I couldn’t do anything wrong six or seven months ago. The message from me is clear: I don’t think there would be anyone better to do the job here. Seven months ago we nearly won the title unexpectedly, I had time to work with players and we took them beyond where the club has been in a long time.”
That run to second place in the Premier League brought two victories over United. In fact the Merseysiders have won the past three in succession against United and five in the last 10. Yet, it is a run that United’s form suggests will end on Sunday.
“I am aware of the rivalry,” said Van Gaal on Friday. Few United fans will let the Dutchman forget it if Liverpool secure another victory at Old Trafford.
United (4-1-3-2): de Gea; Valencia, Evans, Rojo, Young; Carrick; Herrera, Fellaini, Mata; Van Persie, Rooney
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet; Manquillo, Skrtel, Touré, Johnson; Allen, Lucas; Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling; Lambert
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Jones, McNair, Rafael, Anderson, Fletcher, Januzaj, Falcao, Wilson
Liverpool: Jones, Sakho, Lovren, Moreno, José Enrique, Coutinho, Can, Lallana, Markovic, Borini, Balotelli
United 75 – Draw 51 – Liverpool 64
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Child
Fourth Official: J Moss
United 1-0 Liverpool
£1 bet club
Robin van Persie to score first @ 6/1
Running total: £(-)6
One might hope by now that David Moyes’ confidence was such have that the Scot had grown a metaphorical pair. Not so, with Moyes seemingly more out of his depth with each passing week spent at Old Trafford. Even victory over West Bromwich Albion last weekend – and a comfortable one at that – has done little to lift the former Everton manager’s spirits.
Moyes’ hackneyed qualifiers remain; that United will “try” hard in the coming games, or that the Scot “hopes” to achieve positive results. Or even that his side has “played well”. His players have not, and this is not the Manchester United way.
Little wonder, perhaps, with United having lost 12 in all competitions this season. Out of the running for the Premier League title, out of the FA Cup, out of the League Cup; quite possibly out of the Champions League in the coming days. This has been a campaign of unprecedented failure compared to the last quarter century, with Moyes at times having lost control of events on the field, and perhaps even in the dressing room.
Still, Moyes’ lack of confidence, drive, or the air of a man in control with just 10 Premier League games remaining this season, is deeply worrying. This is, after all, the man who is reportedly to be entrusted with a £100 million transfer budget in the summer.
“Positive results in the games coming up would make a big, big difference and that’s what we’ll be trying to achieve,” said the manager on Friday.
“I hope we can show what we’re capable of in those matches. The players have shown that to me recently and with the exception of the Olympiakos game I actually think we’ve played quite well. If we park that game I think we’ve not been in a bad run of form and have had some good results.
“The players have an opportunity to go and show they’re improving. I think they played well at West Brom and there have been signs that they have been doing better. Our away form has been pretty good, but it’s at Old Trafford where we need to pick ourselves up and play better. We’ve made the opportunities and got into lots of positions to score but we’ve not done it. I hope we can show our best in the remaining games.”
Yet, with in-form Liverpool at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon there is little guarantee United’s results will show an up-tick in the coming weeks. Not least with Olympiakos, West Ham United and Manchester City to follow before the month is out. It is a run of matches that will surely define United’s season and, potentially, Moyes’ tenure in the job.
However, failure, if it comes, will not be for lack of players, with Moyes boasting a fully fit squad. Full-back Rafael is available despite taking a knock to the ankle at West Brom last weekend, while winger Nani is fit after being sidelined for three months with a hamstring problem. The former Sporting player could make the bench, while Jonny Evans and Javier Hernández should also feature in the matchday squad.
The Scot has a key decision to make in central defence, where Chris Smalling and Phil Jones performed creditably last weekend. Outgoing captain Nemanja Vidić is expected to return, while Marouanne Fellaini should retain his place in central midfield.
“Nani is back. He had a really bad hamstring injury. But he is back and has trained. Hopefully we get him up to speed very quickly,” said Moyes.
“Rafael, Javier Hernandez and Jonny Evans are all coming along. They all have a chance of playing on Sunday. I’m pleased with the young boys. We’ve had great service from Rio and Vida and we’re using them because we need their experience. With the amount of games we have coming up we’re going to need them to be fit and healthy.”
Moyes is expected to pair Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in attack, despite the Dutchman being hauled off after an hour at the Hawthorns last weekend. van Persie has suffered a frustrating campaign, with whispers suggesting that the 30-year-old is seeking an exit.
However, the striker moved to clarify speculation this week, committing his future to the club. Whether that ‘commitment’ translates into renewed confidence and a visible change in outlook on the pitch remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is without injured full-back Jose Enrique, who has a knee problem, but Mamadou Sakho and Lucas should be available after playing for the reserves in the week.
“I think it’s the biggest game in the Premier League,” said Moyes of the fixture.
“There has been great history between the two clubs over a long period. Every game of football is important and any game that features United and Liverpool is massively important. [Winning on Sunday] would be a big boost. It would be an important three points. We’ve played them twice this year and they’ve been tight games.”
Still, United has won the last six home games against Liverpool in all competitions, even if each has been secured by just a single goal margin. It should provide at least a modicum of confidence to a team that has lacked so much this season.
Perhaps not the manager though. “Their league position suggests they’re ahead of us and they possibly do come here as favourites,” said the Scot. Indeed, it may be true with United 11 points adrift of the Scousers going into Sunday’s match. Victory for the visitors will surely end all hope that United retains of securing a Champions League place next season.
Now that would be a reason for Moyes to demonstrate a lack of confidence.
Manchester United v Liverpool, Premier League, Old Trafford, 1.30pm, 16 March 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Mata, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet; Flanagan, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson; Henderson, Allen, Gerrard; Sturridge, Suarez, Sterling
United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Ferdinand, Evans, Smalling, Fletcher, Giggs, Kagawa, Valencia, Young, Cleverley, Welbeck, Hernández
Liverpool: Jones, Coutinho, Lucas, Sakho, Cissokho, Touré, Kelly, Aspas, Moses, Alberto, Teixeira
United 75 Draw 51 Liverpool 63
Referees: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, G Beswick
Fourth Official: L Probert
One of the most telling insights into David Moyes’ thinking came when the Scot told a reporter that he excluded Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United’s trip to West Bromwich Albion to “keep Rio and Vida for games coming up.” Managers should never to be judged by press activity alone, but the former Everton manager’s choices this season suggest that he views a deep-lying defense as a tactical requirement rather than a stop-gap measure to protect ageing legs.
The game against West Brom saw United win convincingly. Yet, United held a deep line despite youthful Phil Jones and Chris Smalling starting at the centre of defence, against one of the Premier League’s worst sides.
There were some knock-on consequences nuances too, such as how deep Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini dropped in the defensive phase, effectively becoming auxiliary centre backs as Jones and Smalling split wide at every opportunity. The move allowed Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva to close down their opponents at will, but United’s defence was still repeatedly pulled around by West Brom forwards.
With the engine room pinned in its own penalty box, Moyes’ side persisted with the much criticised direct approach for much of the game on Saturday. The incumbent United manager, however, use three distinct methods of transition and was rewarded with three goals.
On the left Evra consistently tried to hit the ball long to release Adnan Januzaj into attacking areas. While the youngster failed to fire on his return to the side the right flank proved to be more fruitful.
Meanwhile, David de Gea abandoned his more natural short passing game to directly engage the right flank, with Fellaini motoring forward to support Rafael.
Rafael to Fellaini was the most frequent passing combination of the match. The Brazilian frequently brought the ball forward and the Belgian midfielder overloaded the flank, holding up the ball and gaining time for Rafael to advance. Juan Mata’s usual natural movement towards the centre vacated the space for United’s full-back to fill.
But it was movement from Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie that won the game for United. Rooney dragged defenders out of position from his starting role at ‘number nine’, while contrary to expectation van Persie began a little deeper, arriving late into the box during an hour on the pitch.
The strike partners took turns making runs behind the midlanders’ defense and often made contact with the ball unmarked. Time and again United’s forwards received long balls on the run and took full advantage of the disarray in the home side’s back four.
Yet, with Carrick and Fellaini sitting deep, Mata and van Persie were too often isolated through middle. It is a strategy unlikely to inspire either player given the complete isolation forced on them.
Evra and Januzaj also had a quiet game, with the Frenchman frequently misplacing passes to the winger ahead. Fellaini’s brawny presence, together with Mata’s creativity, leaves the right flank as United’s most likely route to goal against Liverpool next weekend, although the former Everton midfielder’s form has been far too patchy to place much faith in him.
But while United’s upcoming game against Liverpool must be won to sustain any chance at qualifying for the Champions League next season, the Merseysiders’ rear-guard will be nowhere near as porous as West Brom’s.
If only to stifle the space Liverpool’s number 10 can exploit, United’s midfielders must be more disciplined in their positioning next week. With the engine room operating in defensive mode rather attacking the opposition box, Evra, van Persie and Mata will be in a better position to offer the variety required to breach the Scousers’ defence.
While long ball approach is not known for its accuracy, United must spend more time in the final third, if only to relieve the likely pressure on the back four.
In attack van Persie’s frustration was obvious at the Hawthorns, with the Dutchman making a series of rash tackles that could have led to a dismissal. Rooney’s inability to hold up the ball limits his usefulness in certain areas, but the Liverpool-born forward’s diligence in dragging the opposition defence out of position cannot be replicated by van Persie. As such, it would surprise few if the former Arsenal man began next week’s fixture on the bench.
Indeed, Welbeck’s physical presence is arguably required more than van Persie’s finesse. The academy graduate’s defensive nous will surely appeal to Moyes too.
Meanwhile, on the flanks it is likely that Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young – or both – will return against Liverpool this Sunday. After all, the under-fire United manager has long been accused of distrusting flair players. The Ecuadorian has often been used by the Scot as an out ball on the right flank – another target for De Gea to hit. It might just be very welcome given the current set up.
Deploying Valencia will also free Fellaini from supporting the right flank, enabling the 6’4″ midfielder to use his brute force in more central areas. The Belgian has not enjoyed a strong season, but he allows more mobile players some freedom.
Mata, for example, could be used in his preferred position at ‘number 10’ next Sunday. The Spaniard is a proven goal scorer and his experience playing with Eden Hazard could be put to good use closer to Januzaj on the left. In fact, much could be gained by dropping van Persie – after all, it’s the approach not United’s finishing that is causing more problems right now.
Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League is not a foregone conclusion, though realistically unlikely. Still, the time for experimentation is long gone and van Persie’s ego cannot be prioritised over desperately needed victories. In any case, the Dutch striker can be deployed in Europe where the general lack of tempo suits his natural game more.
And aesthetically pleasing football can wait six months too – a manager used to working with technically gifted footballers could have replaced Moyes by then anyway.
Another match, another test for David Moyes with Manchester United visiting Anfield on Sunday lunchtime. The six places and 27 points that separated these teams last season might ordinarily pose little mental threat to United, but this is, after all, Moyes’ first visit to Liverpool since becoming United manager. Pressure is squarely on the man in the away dugout as the Reds seek to build on a positive start to the season.
Victory over Swansea City and the draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford last Monday has staved off the threat of early murmurings on the terraces. After all, while United picks up points the pressure on Moyes will be firmly focused on the lack of activity in the transfer market and not the team’s performance. And what better way to augment the positive support that the new manager has already received than to win at Anfield – a ground that witnessed five United victories in the past decade.
Still, with Wayne Rooney having suffered a freak training ground injury on Saturday, Moyes’ outfit arrives in Liverpool shorn of the man who has hogged much of the media attention over the past four months. Rooney garnered generous praise for his performance against Chelsea, although the player’s match statistics underscored a belief that the striker is still rusty. Rooney completed, against Chelsea, 90 minutes for the first time since April.
The 10 stitches Rooney received following a clash with club captain Nemanja Vidić may keep the striker out of both United’s fixture 30 miles down the East Lanc Road, and England’s World Cup qualifying double-header next week.
In Rooney’s absence United may look to experience in Ryan Giggs, while Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young are pushing for a place in Moyes’ starting team. Rafael da Silva, Nani and Javier Hernández all miss out through injury, while Anderson and Tom Cleverley battle it out for a place alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield.
Meanwhile, Shinji Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha will be given the opportunity to impress, says the Scot, although neither will start at Anfield.
“We have got very few injuries, only Rafa really,” said Moyes ahead of breaking news of the gash Rooney received to his head over the weekend.
“Jonny got a game, which we felt he needed because he had missed a bit of pre-season, coming in and out at different times. Nani has done more training and is getting closer to it, Chicharito has had a hamstring but he has trained for the last three or four days and is doing much better. So we are very close to full strength.
“We still have Shinji Kagawa, Wilfried Zaha and Javier Hernández to have a good look at yet. They will all be used. Kagawa needed a week off when he came back from Japan, and Hernández could be fit this weekend. He’s not feeling his hamstring anymore but he still lacks games and match sharpness.”
Rooney’s absence will remove a modicum of heat from the tie, with the former Evertonian roundly abused on each visit to Anfield. So much so that Ferguson once used Liverpudlian brickbats as an excuse to leave the striker out of his United team.
With Luis Suarez also absence – the Uruguayan striker still serving a suspension for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovich last season – two major focal points for supporters’ vitriol will be missing.
Still, the experience will add to Moyes’ steep learning curve, with the former Everton manager rapidly being schooled in the size and intensity of focus that surrounds United.
In addition to Sunday’s fixture, Moyes and United’s executive team will attempt to land up to three midfielders before the transfer window closes on Monday evening, with all the inherent media attention that brings.
First though there are three points at stake, with the Premier League’s big guns already gathering at the head of the table.
“What I’ve realised since I came to Man United is that almost every game we play is a big occasion,” said Moyes.
“We’ve just had a big game against Chelsea. Now it’s Liverpool away. Then in a couple of weeks we have Manchester City. It feels like I’ve had a lot of big games and big occasions in a short space of time, a lot of big events happening very quickly.”
Although the intensity of competition on the pitch has lessened over the years, Liverpool remains the biggest fixture on the calendar for many supporters. The Anfield club’s failure to the land an English league title in more than 20 years is unlikely to be broken soon, but there are few teams that United supporters would rather put to the sword.
“I always enjoy playing at Anfield. It’s a ground I have done well at. It’s a stadium where the fans are very close to you and that inspires you and gives you lots of energy. It’s a great atmosphere to be involved in,” said United midfielder Anderson, who is set to stay at the club despite Moyes chasing a cluster of new players.
“I know people talk about the big games, but honestly every single game at Manchester United is a big one. You have to work so hard because everyone wants to win against you. Of course though, Liverpool is always an important match. There is a lot of history between both clubs.”
Meanwhile, the home side is likely to be without Kolo Toure, Joe Allen and Aly Cissokho after the trio suffered injuries during Tuesday’s Capital One Cup win over Notts County. However, defender Martin Skrtel will return for Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Defenders Tiago Ilori of Sporting Lisbon and Paris St-Germain’s Mamadou Sakho will not join the match-day party, although Liverpool has agreed fees totalling £25 million for the pair.
And the Liverpool manager turned up the pressure on Moyes’ ahead of Sunday’s fixture, blaming the Scot for the drab end to United’s clash against Chelsea. While Moyes was often accused of being a conservative coach while in charge of Everton, it is a quality, if replicated at Old Trafford, that will attract criticism from the terraces.
“A manager can affect the attitude of his players. Look at the Chelsea game the other night. It was drifting towards a 0-0 and there wasn’t really a murmur at Old Trafford,” said Rodgers, whose Liverpool side finished seventh last season.
“You know at the time Fergie was there he was probably going for the win so the crowd were near enough expecting a goal at the end. Fergie was renowned for always asking about the time in games and using that influence.”
Still, Moyes has plenty of time on his side and the security of a six-year contract. Should Rodgers once again fail to bring European football to Anfield come May next year it is the Northern Irishman that is likely to be feeling the pressure.
In the meantime Sunday’s match will not define the narrative for a season, but could proffer a significant morale boost to the victors ahead of a two-week international break. Not least Moyes who has never led a victorious Everton team at Anfield.
Liverpool (4-3-2-1): Mignolet; Johson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique; Lucas, Henderson, Gerrard; Aspas, Coutinho; Sturridge. Subs from: Jones, Cissokho, Wisdom, Alberto, Sterling, Borini, Ibe
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Buttner, F da Silva, Smalling, Giggs, Anderson, Zaha, Kagawa, Hernández
Liverpool 62 – Draw 51 – United 74
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: S Ledger, M McDonough
Fourth Official: P Dowd
Patrice Evra came within Nemanja Vidić’s whiskers of scoring at the Stretford End on Sunday – the goal that effectively secured Manchester United’s victory against Liverpool. While the Frenchman is unlikely to be credited with a fifth goal of an increasingly productive season, after his header deflected in off the Serbian’s face, there is little doubt that another three points against the old rivals is particularly satisfying. For Evra, Sir Alex Ferguson, and United’s legion of supporters.
Evra’s victorious emergence from his ongoing personal battle with Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez aside, three points at Old Trafford on Sunday leaves the Reds seven clear of Manchester City in the Premier League – and a full 24 ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ visitors. That is commanding either side of the equation.
Still, Ferguson’s side didn’t have the afternoon entirely its own way in a performance as protean as any this season. United’s fine first half effort morphed during the second period into something altogether more “desperate,” as the Scot put it in the aftermath. It has become the pattern of recent encounters with the Merseyside club, although no repeat of Liverpool’s FA Cup victory last season.
Despite retrenching in search of safety during the final stages, with the points tantalisingly in sight, Ferguson’s was much the better side for much of the opening hour at Old Trafford. It was a period of domination in which the home side should have scored “three or four” according to the 71-year-old manager; one of attacking variety and midfield control.
Danny Welbeck proffered dynamic support of opening goalscorer Robin van Persie, while Michael Carrick controlled the game’s tempo with such precision that the Englishman’s detractors – on the terraces and in the media – must increasingly baffle even a neutral audience. If this wasn’t Xavi-esque, nothing is.
As it turned out the fluency of United’s opening strike – the ball moving at speed between Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Patrice Evra and scorer van Persie – was the summit of the hosts’ ambitions, and not a base on which comprehensive victory was built. It is a failing that should irk Ferguson, no matter the glow of victory over the old rivals.
“All in all, it was an engrossing game, as we expected in a Manchester United-Liverpool match,” said Ferguson on Sunday.
“It’s full of emotion, intensity and it’s great to win. It was a magnificent performance in the first half, as well as we’ve played for a long time. It was hard work after they scored, to be honest with you, and I’m just glad we won the match.
“I think winning is important – it doesn’t matter what league position we are in. I’ve said many times, it’s a fantastic challenge between the two most successful teams in the country. I think those three points today are very, very important ones.”
After all, those points are a panacea against Liverpool – a side with the habit of raising its game against Ferguson’s outfit. As if to prove the point, Suárez ran the channels tirelessly, while Gerrard hunted down every loose ball with a hunger that belies the Merseysiders’ eighth place in the Premier League. The pair, together with substitute Daniel Sturridge, dragged the visitors back into the match during a frantic second period.
Indeed, Liverpool controlled the game’s tempo in addition to monopolising possession during the second 45. No wonder Ferguson eventually sacrificed Shinji Kagawa for Phil Jones with just over 10 minutes to go. That United’s manager had built caution into a tactical system that nominally had the Japanese operating from the left of the midfield was prescient in any case.
Yet, Ferguson will take much from the game even if United’s performance in the second felt short of the Reds’ very best. Not least the performances of Welbeck and Carrick, who contributed much to United’s victory. After all, Carrick’s mature control is now at its very peak, while Welbeck continues to perform despite a frustrating lack of goals.
Welbeck has, with some contradiction, both been limited in his contribution this season, and yet involved in the joint most games for the club this season. That 14 of Welbeck’s 24 appearances have come from the bench says much for competition in forward areas, and also for Ferguson’s determination to involve the 22-year-old despite van Persie’s acquisition.
“Danny was fantastic. I thought he gave them a real hard day of it, the two centre-backs,”
“He and Robin, particularly in the first half, gave them a very difficult time. The reason Danny played was because we wanted someone who would drop on top of their centre-midfield player. He did that well and put in a great shift. He ran his legs off today and deserved the Man of the Match award.”
Victory also keeps the gap at seven ahead of Manchester City despite the Blues’ victory at Arsenal. Roberto Mancini’s men have now secured maximum points in five of their past six matches – a run that will fill the Blues with confidence despite the gap.
United’s advantage is significant, but less than City overhauled last season. Little wonder Mancini professed confidence that his team can still beat United to the Premier League title come May.
And it could be a another pivotal brace of matches in United’s hunt for English title 20 next weekend. City faces Fulham at home, while Ferguson’s side faces Tottenham Hotspur in London.
In the meantime United’s manager, players – especially Evra – will sleep easily tonight.
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.
So there it was – a result at Anfield at last. Nearly five long years of struggles, ending not with a domineering performance so many travelling Manchester United fans sought, but a huge slice of fortune. It favours the brave, doesn’t it? At least those ‘brave’ enough to deploy a midfield axis of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs.
United’s 2-1 victory on Sunday, after four defeats in the past five visits to Anfield, came not on the back of a great team performance. Not even near it. Nor indeed, any real moments of individual genius – although Rafael’s fine goal came close – but two refereeing decisions that swang the match United’s way. First robbing Liverpool of all midfield momentum, and then handing United the match 10 minutes from time.
Referee Mark Halsey got both of those key moments right though – JonJo Shelvey’s 39th minute dismissal for a high tackle on Jonny Evans, and the 81st minute penalty that enabled Robin van Persie to seal United’s first win at Anfield since December 2007. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men deserved very little of the luck though, with the Scot’s midfield completely – and predictably – overrun until Shelvey’s red card changed the game, and the canny Paul Scholes was brought on to ruthlessly exploit the additional space.
In truth, while United defended far better than in many recent matches – Rio Ferdinand on the day of John Terry’s international retirement was immense at the heart of the Reds’ back-four – Ferguson’s men created very little. This was a match in which United’s 70-year-old manager got his tactics all wrong, but came up trumps anyway.
Relief, then, for Ferguson whose team stole the points from a Liverpool side raising its game, once again, for United’s visit.
“In the last four years here we haven’t played well,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“Today at least we’ve got a result. Hopefully that’s a turning point for us because if you look back over the years we always did really well here. I think it was about five, six, seven years in a row we did exceptionally well, but it goes in cycles anyway. Before we had that run they had a period in the late ’80s of getting results against us, so it’s maybe our turn to start.
“I thought we were poor, to be honest with you. I think the last four years we’ve allowed the crowd to get to us a little bit – they give fantastic support to their team and they really dominated the first half. Second half they got a great start.
“With ten men I thought that was a great boost to them because it was something to hold on to, but credit to the players in that respect; the second half we played much, much better, but we were against ten men. I think Scholes, Carrick and Giggs’ experience got us through.”
Predictably, Liverpool’s players and manager complained about the refereeing, although it was almost impossible for Halsey not to have shown Shelvey red for a tackle that crossed the line from reckless to excessive. Meanwhile, other marginal calls fell United’s way, with little evidence for Liverpool’s complaint. Evans cleanly tackled Luis Suarez, with the Kop baying for a penalty, while Glenn Johnson felled Antonio Valencia ;under the official’s nose for the winning spot kick.
The pre-match ceremonies had brought a measure of détente between the camps, but it was shattered five minutes before half time when Shelvey refused to take his punishment with any grace. The former-Charlton midfielder, having already hit Ferdinand with a barrage of four-letter expletives on the pitch, aimed further ire at Ferguson before departing for the dressing rooms.
“I think it’s a clear sending off, I’ve absolutely no doubts about it,” added Sir Alex.
“I’ve seen the replay. It was reckless. Jonny Evans, who has dived in, went for the ball and got the ball, no question about that, but Shelvey was nowhere near getting the ball and could have given Jonny Evans a real bad injury. He was very lucky, actually.
“Shelvey came and blamed me. Why not? Why look at himself in the mirror? Just blame someone else. I think the boy’s young and when he looks at it again he’ll realise the stupidity of it. He may apologise, he may not.”
The midfielder later claimed on Twitter that he had apologised to United’s septuagenarian coach, before deleting the statement. It takes not a soothsayer to predict why, not least after the 20-year-old later accused Ferguson of being “a grass” for the manager’s perceived role in the decision.
Meanwhile, in a week when United supporters came under fire for singing “Always the victim” at Old Trafford last Saturday, Ferguson came perilously close to echoing the sentiment if not the dark spirit of that particularly divisive chant.
But there were positives for United, not least Ferdinand’s outstanding defensive display, and another buccaneering performance from Brazilian right-back Rafael da Silva. The youngster retains many critics, especially with loose defensive work too often complementing fine attacking skills. But with United on the rack for much of the fixture, Rafael demonstrated maturity in defence and an outstanding goal, curled in with his left foot.
“Rafael’s goal got us out of the mire,” added Ferguson of the 51st minute equaliser.
“It was a fantastic goal, a good bit of football and it put us in the position where we didn’t need to panic and worked our way through the rest of the game. [The penalty] wasn’t easy for him [van Persie], but he’s taken it well, just the way I envisaged he would take these penalties. When he was at Arsenal, either side he would thunder them home. Reina’s had a good attempt, he got a hand to it, but the power of the shot has made it safe.”
Off the pitch United played a full part in commemorating those lost at Hillsborough 23 years ago, with Sir Bobby Charlton handing 96 roses to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush. The flowers formed part of an extensive pre-match ceremony, which Ferguson had ensured United did not shirk.
Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard released red balloons over Anfield, followed by the usual pre-match rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Visiting supporters, warned to behave by Ferguson pre-match, sang through the anthem as is always the way at Anfield. “U N I T E D,” sang almost 3,000 travelling Mancunians in support of their team. ‘Foul’ cried a select few – ill-informed – journalists on social media.
While, Sky Sports deliberately sought to stoke the controversy, and the Mirror’s Martin Lipton claimed disrespect, there were no complaints from more sensible observers. After all, nobody claims “United Calypso” and dozens of other club anthems across the land are sacrosanct.
Indeed, this was a match when – save for a few muted cries of “Murderers” and one unfortunate burst of “Where’s your famous Munich song?” after 13 minutes – the majority came to pay respect and enjoy a fine, if fortunate United victory. By the end two Liverpool supporters ran across the Anfield turf wheeling their arms in an all-too-familiar aeroplane motion to provoke another round of anti-Liverpool songs in an empty stadium. There’s always a few to break the mould.
On the pitch United is yet to reach anywhere near top gear this season, having only ever played well in short bursts. There were rarely any moments at all on Sunday, save for the goals. In that there is at least hope; United can only get better in the season to come. Unless, the pessimists among us might add, Ferguson’s luck simply runs out. It certainly didn’t on Sunday.
But after a week in which the 70-year-old has forcefully built a bridge between the two clubs, perhaps he deserved it.