After Manchester United’s disappointing draws with Everton and Rangers in the past week thoughts turn to Sunday and the visit of Liverpool. Still the season’s biggest fixture for most supporters, the Merseysiders arrive with a new manager in Roy Hodgson but boardroom chaos threatening to engulf the Anfield club’s season.
Not that Liverpool’s financial troubles are any concern of United of course, with Liverpool’s arrival at Old Trafford on Sunday the perfect tonic after a traumatic week. Not only did United rack up the second and third draws of the season but winger Antonio Valencia suffered a double leg break and ankle dislocation that will keep the Ecuadorian out until at least the spring.
With so many star names rested for the Champions League clash with Rangers’ on Tuesday Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will be fresh for the encounter with the club’s biggest rivals. It’s a clash United needs to win to regain momentum in the Premier League title race after Chelsea’s excellent start.
“We took a calculated risk in terms of the squad for Tuesday and we still had enough big players there to get the result. You have to give credit to Rangers the way they set out their stall,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.
“I’m looking forward to Sunday now. I don’t think Liverpool will play five at the back like Rangers. Maybe six!
“I say it time and again – this is THE fixture. The form in these fixtures fluctuates quite a bit. There was a period of about five years when we didn’t lose, then we lost a cup tie and they won about three of four in a row then.”
United, already four points behind Chelsea, could see the champions seven points into the distance if the unthinkable happens at Old Trafford Sunday lunchtime. The sides shared the results last season, with Liverpool scoring a third win in a row at Anfield in October before Ferguson’s side broke the sequence with a 2-1 at October in March.
Baring any reaction, the Reds will welcome back Rio Ferdinand to the Premier League side after the defender played the full 90 minutes against Rangers on Tuesday. Ferguson is set to make eight further changes, with only Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher retaining their places.
The England captain will, however, not regain the role at United, with Ferguson confirming that Nemanja Vidic is now the team’s permanent skipper. Ferguson will of course be without Valencia, who’s long-term injury was so traumatic for supporters, player and team in midweek.
“Antonio had his operation and it was successful,” added Ferguson.
“The break was clean and we are delighted to announce that. It was a major concern for us at the time.
“There’s ligament damage but we’re looking at the end of February, which is better than we thought on Tuesday night. He’s a strong boy and he’s very positive about it – being positive helps in these situations.
“There’s a mental part to it. When Alan Smith got his injury against Liverpool, he was so positive about it. He was so nonchelant about it and that helped him.
“It’s a blow but in the context of the squad we have we should cope with it. Having players like Nani, Giggs, Ji-Sung Park, Obertan and Beb&eactue; means there are options there.”
Ferguson is set to deploy two strikers once again after the failed experiment with Dimitar Berbatov in the lone role against Everton. Although the Bulgarian’s personal performance was again excellent, United’s defensive frailties cost Ferguson’s side two valuable points.
Indeed, the former Tottenham Hotspur striker is in the finest form of a United career that has so often flattered to deceive. While few supporters doubt the player’s quality, Berbatov’s application is so often the root of his problems. No so any more, says Ferguson.
“I think the situation is when we buy a player for a lot of money there’s a focus. If he has the odd bad game there’s a lot of criticism that other players don’t get. I think we need to dismiss the press, although I think he worries about it himself,” adds Ferguson.
“I concede that at times he seemed to struggle, but if you are satisfied about a player’s credentials you must persevere and trust your judgement, you must have faith, and I think we are being rewarded this season for our confidence in a player who has a touch of genius about him.
“Certainly this is a big season for him that could determine the rest of his career, but he has accepted the challenge and responded in a way that has made him one of our major successes so far!”
Meanwhile, Hodgson’s side arrives, with the former Fulham manager having rested the majority his stars during the Europa League win over Steua Bucharest on Thursday night. Liverpool will be without both Fabio Aurelio and Dirk Kuyt but out-of-form Fernando Torres will play.
Liverpool – 4-5-1 – Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Konchesky; Maxi, Poulsen, Lucas, Gerrard, Cole; Torres. Subs from: Jones, Pacheco, Kyrgiakos, Babel, Ngog, Agger, Meireles, Wilson, Spearing, Darby, Shelvey, Kelly, Jovanovic
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant referees: Darren Cann & Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Mark Clattenburg
United – WWDWDD
Liverpool – WLWWDW