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