Much of the pre-match anticipation of the usual combustible derby between Manchester United and Liverpool has been resting on the mind games of Sir Alex Ferguson and the often controversial figure of Luis Suarez, who has already bore the brunt of the United gaffer’s ire on several occasions. This time, Ferguson has labelled the Liverpool striker “laden with controversy” in an attempt to stoke the flames ahead of the game at Old Trafford
With United in imperious form, while Liverpool are floundering in mid-table, under usual circumstances the impetus would most certainly be with the Manchester club. However, these kind of derbies are rarely straight-forward affairs, but it would be refreshing to see a return of focus to the football, rather than the off-field antics of respective supporters, and the unsavoury behaviour of some of the players involved. In footballing terms, the Red Devils are in the ascendancy, with a superiority of players on the field and a very strong run of results behind them.
With Wayne Rooney already ruled out of the encounter, last season United would have struggled for goals, however, Robin van Persie is in imperious form and against a Liverpool defence that has struggled for consistency, expect the Dutchman to score, if not open the scoring. With Rooney out of contention, it would be great to see who Sir Alex opts for to fill the void left; Shinji Kagawa in the hole, or Van Persie playing off Javier Hernandez up front? Both offer some tantalising possibilities.
While Kagawa has been out for some while, the Japanese international did get sixty minutes of first team action against West Bromwich Albion and finished with a 97% pass success rate. Although he did nothing spectacular, per se, if you need someone to retain the ball and look for penetrating passes, then he’s your man. On the other hand, United could decide to start the encounter with Chicharito, who offers a completely different approach to the game.
The little Mexican hasn’t quite got a huge role in build-up play, but what he lacks in that regard he makes up for in his off-the-ball movement and positioning around the box. If United opt for Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young on the flanks, Hernandez’s pace and movement will be a genuine handful for Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel.
What will be an interesting scenario will be the clash of Liverpool’s attacking forces and United’s creaky defence. With the recent acquisition of Daniel Sturridge, the Reds have strengthened in the goalscoring department, but if Suarez doesn’t turn up, you struggle to see where Liverpool will get their goals. United appear to have put some of their defensive worries behind them with the return of skipper Nemanja Vidic and they’ll be hoping the towering Serb can contain the Uruguayan.
On paper, United practically outweigh their opponents in virtually every area of the park. Even Steven Gerrard, Mr. Liverpool, has less of an impact as he used to – though still expect him and Michael Carrick to be an exciting match-up in the centre of the park. Liverpool have been so up-and-down this season that trying to draw an predictions based on form is a difficult task.
Most significantly will be Suarez’s impact, and whether or not the ‘race row’ that hovered over him and Patrice Evra will have subsided. If he has a good game, which he usually does against United, then Vidic will have his work cut out for him. The last player he needs to face on his road to full fitness is one as sly, slippery and agile as Luis Suarez. However, similarly, Liverpool will find it extremely hard to contain Van Persie, who seems intent on scoring against all and sundry, often when his team require him the most.
Still, with the spectre of the disturbances at the Etihad Stadium, and the recent fan trouble and race rows yet to disappear completely from the public spectrum, it would be great to see a big derby between Manchester United and Liverpool remembered for its footballing quality. Despite Liverpool’s current fortunes still looking bleak, they remain England’s second biggest club - that’s right, second - and the Manchester/Liverpool derby still holds that thrill and electricity it always had.
It will be provide discussion whatever the outcome, but hopefully, it will be, at long last, for the quality of the football on display. And a United win, of course. Now they’re off their perch, that’s where I’d rather they stay.