There is an acute media focus on Manchester United’s trip to Liverpool this Sunday for well document reasons, with Sir Alex Ferguson demanding visiting fans do nothing to provoke embarrassment at Anfield. Yet, while less attention is focused on pitchside matters than usual there is still a pivotal game in play, with United seeking a fifth win in six Premier League games this term. Moreover, with the Reds having failed to win at Anfield in nearly five years Ferguson’s men are certainly due a result Sunday lunchtime.
Liverpool versus United has always evoked memories of great matches and intense rivalry. This weekend’s match is likely to be both poignant and tense given the contents of the Independent Hillsborough Panel report, released two week’s ago, together with controversy over United supporters anti-Liverpool chants sung against Wigan Athletic last weekend.
Add the background of Luis Suarez’ racial abuse of Patrice Evra in the same fixture last season, and the clash becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.
United’s 3,000 travelling fans are under the spotlight, although match-going Reds have long had plenty to say about the opposition’s behaviour regarding the Munich disaster. But this is no time for moral relativism; it is a time for mutual and solemn respect of those who have been lost. With flowers set to be laid by Ferguson and Si Bobby Charlton at the Kop, and captains Nemanja Vidić and Steven Gerrard releasing 96 red balloons, it is unthinkable that supporters on either side will behave in a way unbecoming of two great clubs.
On the pitch United has failed to produce either the performances or results at Anfield recently – Ferguson’s men have failed to win on Merseyside since December 2007. But neither side has started the campaign in top gear, although somehow United has ground out four wins from five matches despite some shockingly poor defensive performances.
As so often in recent seasons it is in midfield where the questions of Ferguson’s men will most be asked, with the Scot facing a key decision about how many men, and whom, to deploy in support of Michael Carrick in central midfield in what will be a keenly fought encounter.
“In tight games like this you know there are not going to be a lot of goals,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.
“It will be an odd-goal victory for either side or maybe a draw. Our away form last year was terrific, one of the best years we have had away from home. We hope that continues. We want to make sure we do our best and represent ourselves in the proper way. That is the key for us on Sunday, just to enjoy it. Once the whistle goes, go and win the game. That should be our attitude.”
Ferguson, blessed with no fresh injuries after United’s laboured win over Galatasaray on Wednesday night, brings. Rio Ferdinand back into central defence along side captain Vidić, with Jonny Evans dropping to the bench. Howevr, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Anderson remain on the sidelines with injury.
Ferguson will choose between Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa in central midfield.
“Everyone who was involved on Wednesday is available,” added Ferguson.
“I know there were reports in the paper about Rooney being possible, but that is not the case. He’s not far away, I think he may be fine for next week. He’s doing a lot of great training and has been working hard. It’s just a matter of getting him into the full football training side of things, which he has done part of.
“Ashley Young has got a bruised cartilage – I think it’s going to take two or three weeks more for him. We’re just taking our time with that one. You can easily play with it and train but we’re not going down that road, we want to make sure he’s okay. We get a lot of experiences these days of injuries reoccurring when they come back too quickly and we don’t want that with the players – we want to give them a full recovery. He should be okay with two or three weeks’ time.”
Although Darren Fletcher made a late appearance from the bench against the Turkish champions the Scot is not expected to feature at Anfield, where United has lost four matches in the last five visits. Ferguson side has also seemingly been unable to keep 11 men on the pitch for many of those encounters.
“Darren made a start on Wednesday which was great,” added Ferguson.
“He won’t start the match on Sunday but he’ll certainly play against Newcastle. I think that’s a perfect game for him to start back. Then we have the game against Tottenham next Saturday and he possibly could be involved in that, but it depends how he does on Wednesday.
“It’ll be his first full 90 minutes after 10 months out so it’ll be a big night for him. He’s handling the conditions at the moment and he looks fine as we saw the other night. It’s a matter of hoping the condition stays dormant. He’s handling his diet well and doing all the right things so hopefully he gets that break he needs.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson is seeking to build on an indifferent start to the season, with his side picking up four victories in a row but not always with performances that match results. The hosts can lay no claim for better form, having slumped to 18th in the Premier League after suffering two defeats in the club’s opening four matches.
Tough time, then, for Brendan Rodgers, whose tika-taka sensibilities are being tested by media criticism of the neat but unpenetrative Joe Allen, and Gerrard’s insistence on wastefully hitting the Hollywood ball at every turn.
Yet, it is not only United supporters, but players too, who believe that Liverpool reserves an annual ‘Cup Final performance’ for the Anfield rendezvous with United.
“Liverpool haven’t started so well so I’m sure this will be like a cup final,” adds Cleverley, who missed the fixture last season with injury and may stand aside for Paul Scholes on Sunday.
“Meanwhile, we’ve won our last three games so we’re hoping to build on that. It’s important we maintain that momentum. It’s a massive game for the team. But I think form goes out of the window in these fixtures. It’s more like a one-off game. They’re great occasions. Growing up as a United fan, I’ve watched about 20 or 30 of these games, so I know exactly what this fixture means to everybody associated with the club. I just hope we can get the right result.”
That result will depend on whether United can get control in central midfield – an area that looks threadbare with at least one of 38-year-old Scholes and 39-year-old Giggs likely to start.
And if that is shocking, then United’s supporters need not add to the feeling on what is likely to be an emotional day on Merseyside.
Liverpool v Manchester United – Premier League, Anfield – Sunday 23 September 2012, 1.30pm
Liverpool (4-3-3): Reina; Kelly, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson; Gerrard, Sahin, Allen; Borini, Suarez, Sterling. Subs from: Jones, Doni, Enrique, Carragher, Coates, Assaidi, Downing, Shelvey, Henderson, Cole, Flanagan.
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Valencia, Kagawa, Nani; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Powell, Giggs, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, Valencia, Macheda, Young, Hernández, Welbeck
Referee: M Halsey
Assistants: S Child, M McDonough
Fourth Official: L Probert
Last 10: Liverpool 5, United 4, Draw 1
Overall: Liverpool 62, United 72, Draw 51
- Suarez’ second-hald equaliser earned Liverpool a point away to Sunderland last weekend, with manager Rogers praising the player’s influence;
- However, the Uruguayan ranks first on the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for shots off target this season with 12. The striker also tops the charts for yellow cards, with three and is the only striker in the top ten;
- Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey was the hardest working player from either side away to Sunderland last weekend, covering 6.16 miles;
- Meanwhile, Allen has continued his adaptation to life on Merseyside, receiving the ball 211 times in Liverpool’s opening matches, a club-leading figure;
- Allen is also third overall in Index for distance covered with 25.22 miles, having covered more ground than any other Liverpool player in three of his four games for the club;
- Midfield partner Gerrard successfully completed 42 passes in the opponent’s half and three crosses against Sunderland;
- Scholes’ midfield masterclass was the catalyst behind a thumping 4-0 win at home for United against Wigan last weekend.
- At 37 Scholes continues to provide an effective return for the time he spends on the pitch – the midfielder makes a successful pass in his opponent’s half once every two minutes and 14 seconds;
- Debutant Alexander Büttner was United’s second fastest player against Wigan, clocking 19.84mph;
- Carrick continues to go about effective work in the midfield for United, having played more minutes than any other team-mate this season – 390;
- Carrick also covered more ground than any other United player last weekend against Wigan, working hard for 6.39 miles;
- The ever-reliable Antonio Valencia continues with a steadfast level of performance this season – the Ecuadorian has made 55 successful passes in the attacking third, more than any other United player.