Whilst Liverpool haven’t been in a position to realistically challenge for the league title for some years now, this game is still the one most fans of both clubs look for when fixtures are announced at the beginning of the season. Of course the Liverpool – Manchester rivalry goes back well beyond Premier League times, and in fact goes well beyond football too. During the industrial revolution, when Great Britain was the superpower of the world these two cities battled for supremacy as Lancashire’s industrial powerhouse. Manchester had its factories and drew wealth from the manufacture of cotton amongst over things, and Liverpool was one of the greatest ports in the world. When the Manchester ship canal was built, trade could bypass the docks at Liverpool and go straight to Manchester. This caused unemployment and deep resentment. The fiercest rivalries often have far more about them than simply football; such as Portsmouth and Southampton which grew not only from proximity but also from a story of changing fortunes hundreds of years old; and such as the two giants of Glasgow, whose rivalry stems from different Christian denominations.
Aside from historical one-upmanship, the two city’s teams are the most successful in English history, and it is currently the time for Liverpudlians (and fans the world over) to watch with envy at the successes enjoyed by their bitter rivals. A Liverpool fan can gain some consolation from the pain of a pot-less season by beating Manchester United. Manchester United now have one more league title than Liverpool, but still fall short on the European front, having one three less than Liverpool’s five gained in their pomp (And not forgetting the miracle of Istanbul).
Manchester United may have won the league last year, but honours have been even in the recent league ties. Both teams have recorded two home wins each in the last two seasons.
So what of this year? Kenny Dalglish has announced that he has a full squad to pick from, giving him some selection headaches. Glen Johnson might return in place of Kelly at right back, if he does he’ll find himself up against one of the most inform wingers in the division in the shape of Ashley Young. Steven Gerrard shows that he has a sense of occasion, and is also set to make a return, perhaps at the expense of Jordan Henderson. Liverpool have done well without setting the league on fire so far, and look to have bounced back from their abysmal showing at Tottenham with wins against Wolves and Everton. Aside from the 2-0 victory over Arsenal, Liverpool have lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Downing picked on either wing, sometimes with Kuyt or Henderson on the other flank. The midfield pairing of Adam and Lucas Leiva has looked solid, so this leaves Dalglish with decisions to make regarding the deployment of Gerrard. It would be a surprise if Adam was benched, a defensive midfielder such as Leiva is vital in games such as this, but it may well be him making way for Stevie G.
Liverpool’s 3-1 victory at home last season over Manchester United came courtesy of the brilliance of Luis Suarez, and a hat-trick from Dirk Kuyt. Liverpool lined up in a 4-4-2 that day, and are expected to play that same formation on Saturday. Andy Carroll may find himself benched for this huge game, as his physical game will not bother the likes of Phil Jones and the fit again Nemanja Vidic. Fans favourite Kuyt may get the nod to play alongside Suarez up front.
Manchester United have been even more tactically consistent that Liverpool, also favouring the classic 4-4-2. Rooney will start, almost certainly partnered by Hernandez, but perhaps Ferguson will show faith with Danny Welbeck. Both have looked sharp this season, but Chicharito’s goals ratio is just too impressive to leave him out. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones look to be a not just great prospects anymore, but top class players already. A back four of Evra, Jones, Vidic and Smalling is probably Ferguson’s strongest available selection, and probably the best defensive unit in the league. Rio Ferdinand is short of match minutes, but Ferguson might just turn to his tried and tested centre back partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic now that both are available, experience is vital in derby games, and those two have played together for years. Certainly, Alex Ferguson will be glad of the return to fitness of his defenders, this is no place for Antonio Valencia to fill in at right back – not with Glen Johnson overlapping every time Liverpool have possession.
United have conceded an awful amount of shots on goal so far this season, this is probably due to the lack of defensive midfield cover. Anderson is having his best season in United colours so far in his career, and Tom Cleverley has emerged in a very short time to be an influential midfielder for United. He will challenge Darren Fletcher for a starting place, Ferguson will probably go with the work-rate of Fletcher for this away game, and Cleverley might make an appearance from the bench as part of a managed return to fitness after that nasty injury sustained at Bolton.
If both teams line up in their expected 4-4-2, then Manchester United look to have the edge, the personal battles all over the pitch will be vital in deciding the game, and the majority of them – on form – will go in United’s favour. Gerrard vs Cleverley will be of interest to Fabio Capello if young Tom plays, as will the manner that the Englishmen in United’s defence deal with the unquestionably world class Suarez.
All eyes will be on Rooney (When are they not?) following his red card in Podgorica, but despite his infamous short fuse, Rooney has never been sent off in a game against Liverpool, unlike his team mate Vidic, who seems to always see red. Rooney will be looking to bounce back from his disappointing England game, and will relish the opportunity to play against Liverpool.Rooney will be getting involved in the game as much as possible, dropping deep to pick up the ball from midfield, or even from defense. Hernandez or Welbeck will be the spear head of a 4-4-2 that will seem to be a 4-4-1-1 when not in possession.
If Nani is used in preference to Valencia, expect to see the wingers switching flanks to confuse their markers, indeed when United attack, there’s lots of fluidity and interchanging between the attacking players.
Goalkeeper David De Gea has come in for some unwarranted criticism, he’s actually played very well, but Liverpool will look to test his long range stopping skills form the outset, and pile the pressure on the young Spaniard as much as they can. He’s quite slight of frame, and Dalglish will definitely think about involving Andy Carroll at some stage.
This is a tough game to call, recent league games between the teams have always ended in home wins, but the way Manchester United are playing and scoring with such frequency, that could change. Both teams are likely to mirror each other’s formation, it will be a scrappy, tight game which may well be decided by a flash of brilliance from either Rooney or Suarez.
Alex Ferguson has implied that this game means more to Liverpool than Manchester United these days, and looking at the league table at the moment, it’s certainly true. A win for Liverpool will bring them within 3 points of United, whereas a loss will leave them a huge 9 points adrift very early in the season. Dalglish more than anyone else at Liverpool knows the importance of this game, and the importance of not losing, but any instructions to play for a draw will be banished from the players’ minds as soon as they head down the tunnel.