With only 33 miles separating the infamous Kop from the Stretford End, rich histories of glory mixed with tragedy and thirty-seven domestic titles each, Manchester United and Liverpool are two sides that share rather a lot in common.
This is, however, as many of us know, as much a cause for friction as it is for mutual respect and there has unarguably been somewhat of a personality clash between these two sides throughout their searches for domestic supremacy.
United vs Liverpool is a match that needs no hype, a gladiatorial battle between Britain’s most decorated clubs played out over 90 minutes, however the last eighteen months have been testing for both clubs.
The shock of Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and its consequent drastic effect on United’s form last season coincided with a Luis Suarez inspired Liverpool side that looked destined for the top only to narrowly miss out on clinching their first ever Premier League title.
Sunday’s match, however, reinforces how much can change in football over the space of a summer with United going into the game searching for their sixth straight Premier League victory whilst Liverpool sit seven points behind United hoping to avoid their seventh loss of the season.
Louis Van Gaal expressed his frustration at United’s performance after their fortuitous victory over Southampton on Monday night, however, if he hasn’t already, the Dutchman will quickly realise that only one thing matters when these two sides come together and that is the result.
Injury concerns take a back seat and form becomes irrelevant. United vs Liverpool is often decided by who wants it the most and who makes the least mistakes and is a tie that has bought some unlikely heroes; Dirk Kuyt’s five-yard hat-trick in 2011, John O’Shea’s Anfield winner in 2007, Andrea Dossena and Albert Reira’s goals in 2009 and Diego Forlan’s double in 2002, to name just a few.
United know that victory will go along way to making up for the travesty of last season’s performances across both fixtures against Liverpool and will put a foothold on United’s place in the top four whilst heaping yet more misery on their bitter rivals.
For Liverpool, three points could kick start their season and would heal some wounds left behind by two damaging draws against Sunderland and Basle in the last week. Whilst Brendan Rodgers would be far happier with a point than Louis Van Gaal, a trip to Old Trafford could be exactly what his side need.
Sunday’s match is make or break for Rodgers, another draw against a mid-table side could have been fatal for the Northern Irishman’s side, however, his team have a huge opportunity to make a statement and a clash against their bitter rivals could give Liverpool’s under-performing players the spark they need to find their form once more.
United’s defensive frailties have been widely acknowledged this season and despite a return from injury for Michael Carrick and a purple patch of form for Marouane Fellaini, Van Gaal’s side are in desperate need of midfield protection and are too often caught out by opposing attackers willing to take on players and run into space.
Liverpool have two such players who can cause United serious problems in this area; Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling. If Rodgers allows his two most dynamic players the freedom to run at United and test their shape then it could be a long afternoon for United’s back five who will need to ensure that communication is clear and discipline impeccable.
For Rodgers, his main concern, like Van Gaal’s, will lie with his defence. The arrival of Dejan Lovren has done little to alter his side’s permeable defence and an in-form Robin van Persie will be looking to capitalise on his increasing confidence with a strong showing this weekend.
Another concern for Rodgers will be his bench. Lazar Markovic, has done very little to repay his manager’s rather expensive faith in his ability, Emre Can and Fabio Borini have stuttered in their progression after showing signs of potential whilst Adam Lallana’s fitness remains in doubt after fracturing two ribs against Leicester City.
Neither set of fans will be feeling especially confident come Sunday lunch time, both well aware of the fragility of their two sides. To many it seems Liverpool have more to lose given their league position, however, defeat for United would feel very much like the one step forward two steps back routine displayed so epically by David Moyes’ team last season.
Gary Neville’s suggestion that this dual represents that of a ‘pub match’ was rightfully dismissed by Van Gaal and showed an uncharacteristic lack of respect for two sides with some superbly talented players. The Dutchman was right to remind Neville to “pay attention to his words” and proved that he is willing to stand up for his players regardless of the opposition.
It is time for his players to follow suit and give a spirited performance of determination and grit, two characteristics that are slowly returning to United’s repertoire after tough wins over Southampton, Arsenal and Stoke.
For Rodgers, he needs a performance that shows signs of the confidence that typified his team last year. Liverpool look a side lacking identity and resemble a group of players unsure of how to get the best out of each other, however, just as a summer can be a long time in football, so can a weekend and Rodgers’ side must go into the game believing that their season may only be one result away from resurrection.
The stage is set for yet another fiery encounter and both Rodgers and Van Gaal, two men with the ego to believe they can outwit and outmanoeuvre the game’s finest managers, will be desperate to draw first blood.