Sir Alex Ferguson may be in a state of favete linguis – at least with the international media and his own TV station – but Manchester United’s squad can be in no doubt of the importance of Sunday’s fixture with Liverpool at Anfield. After the calamitous defeat at Chelsea on Tuesday night – a second loss in four Premier League games – United simply has to secure at least a point at Anfield.
Ferguson’s side will do so without key defender Rio Ferdinand and suspended captain Nemanja Vidic against the seventh placed Merseysiders. And with Liverpool potentially welcoming £35 million striker Andy Carroll back into the fold after injury, it promises to be a tough encounter at Anfield, a ground on which United has lost on the past two visits.
With Jonny Evans still suffering from an ankle injury, Chris Smalling, who has excelled in recent weeks, and the previously ostracised Wes Brown, will deputise in central defence for the Sunday lunch-time kick-off. Patrice Evra faces a late test on an ankle injury sustained against Chelsea at the weekend. Either Rafael or Fabio da Silva will come into the side if the Frenchman is unfit.
Meanwhile, United should welcome back Ryan Giggs into the fold. The Welshman missed the Reds’ defeat at Stamford Bridge but his vast experience will be welcome just five days after the crushing if controversial defeat to Chelsea.
“You could not have a better game to get the frustrations of Tuesday night out of our systems,” said Scot Darren Fletcher, whose performances have markedly dipped this season.
“It is a weird thing to say about a match between Liverpool and Manchester United but if anything it has become even bigger because of what happened at Stamford Bridge.
“There is a lot of disappointment because we never seem to get the rub of the green down there. We have to bounce back quickly and get all our focus and energy on Liverpool.
“It is part of football rivalry that there might be more incentive from stopping us achieving stuff than what they can do themselves. Liverpool are a proud club with a great tradition. They certainly won’t want to relinquish the record to us. However, we are going there to get our title challenge back on track so it is not as though we are lacking an incentive to win.”
Ferguson could restore Dimitar Berbatov to the United attack for the match after the Bulgarian was demoted to the bench for United’s trip south this week. While Ferguson picked an unchanged side for the first time in 165 matches against Chelsea, Javier Hernández is likely to miss out if the Scot restores his leading scorer along side Wayne Rooney.
Hernández bagged his 13th goal of an increasingly profitable season at Wigan Athletic last month and in scoring with a third of his shots this season boasts the best chance conversion rate in the Premier League.
Whatever the line-up, United’s manager will be on United’s bench for the match, despite being charged with improper conduct by the Football Association this week. It is the charge Ferguson will contest in the knowledge that the FA – alleged victim, judge, jury and probably executioner – will almost certainly increase the touchline ban to four matches when it finds the 69-year-old guilty.
Off-the-field distractions aside, nothing will irritate Ferguson more than dropping points at Anfield – far more so than any FA sanction in next week’s hearing. Not that the Scot will welcome Stoke-on-Trent based referee Phil Dowd, who has previously sent off five United players.
Indeed, victory will enable Ferguson’s side to stretch its lead in the title race to six points after Arsenal’s tame draw with Sunderland at Emirates on Saturday. At this stage of the season, every points counts. The prize: a record 19th English league title. And nothing could be sweeter than taking a step towards the title at Anfield.
“I always say the best feeling, the most satisfaction you get, is winning at Anfield,” says United legend Giggs
“It’s an old-school ground. With the history and rivalry between the two teams, it’s probably the ground where, if you come away with a win, you’re most satisfied. It’s such a tough game and you’ve got to beat so many elements to win – the fans, the history and then there’s the actual game, so you’re up against everything.”
“So to win at Anfield is, for me definitely, the most satisfying ground to win at.”
Meanwhile, Dalglish will pair Carroll with £22 million new signing Luis Suarez only if the former Newcastle United player has recovered from the thigh injury that has prevent his debut to date. However, Dalslish could be without Daniel Agger, who is suffering with a thigh injury, although Raul Mereiles should play.
Liverpool – 442 – Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio; Gerrard, Lucas, Mereiles, Cole; Kuyt, Suarez. Subs from: Gulacsi, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Spearing, ,Wilson, Ngog, Poulsen.
United – 442 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Brown, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, Obertan, Hernández, Tunnicliffe, King, Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Owen, Carrick.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistant referees: Dean Mohareb & Glenn Turner
Fourth official: Andre Marriner
Liverpool – WWDLWD
United – LWWDWL