LONDON — Yes, it’s the derby to end all soccer derbies and it’s all-American — John W. Henry IV’s Fenway Sports Group of Boston, Massachusetts, against the Glazers of Florida, with the prize of bragging rights all along the Eastern Seaboard.
Funnily enough, we don’t see Liverpool at Manchester United quite that way over here in England. It’s more a clash between cities separated by just 36 miles but a whole lot of history and a late-nineteenth-century waterway, the Manchester Ship Canal, which the businessmen of that inland city built to obtain better access to the Atlantic while avoiding the charges previously levied by the railways and the administrators of the port of Liverpool.
Not that such ancient issues obsess the fans of today. This became English soccer’s fiercest rivalry because United ceased to be the country’s leading club after Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley built Liverpool into the most consistently successful institution in the post-war history of our game and more recently, under Sir Alex Ferguson, United regained that exalted status, previously attained in the long and glorious era of Sir Matt Busby.
There should be mutual respect. And maybe some can be found beneath the surface. But all too often there’s bitterness, exacerbated by the virulent minorities among the supporters of both sides who have tastelessly sung of tragedies – including the 1958 air crash that killed many members of a great United team and almost claimed the life of Busby — that have afflicted each. At least it’s more about the soccer now and, in particular, the perch that Ferguson was credited with having said he arrived at United determined to "knock Liverpool off."
Liverpool haven’t been champions – of England, at least – since 1990. United under Ferguson took the title 14 times. But since Ferguson handed over to David Moyes last summer they have slipped so far out of contention that even a Champions League spot next season seems fanciful. And on Sunday at Old Trafford, with the atmosphere, as ever, electric, they must play host to a Liverpool so seriously improved by the coaching of Brendan Rodgers that their momentum could threaten main contenders Chelsea and Manchester City.
It verges on an unfair fight, almost, when you think that Liverpool will come with the most lethal attack in England — Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, now augmented by the quick and dangerous young Raheem Sterling — to face a defense ageing and about to be reconstructed with the expected summer departures of Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra along with Inter-bound Nemanja Vidic.
Yet United will challenge again. Money matters and this is a club with plenty — plus the freedom to use it under financial-fair-play regulations rewarding those with the biggest revenue. Both United and Liverpool have worldwide appeal but Old Trafford holds 76,000 and Anfield some 30,000 fewer and the financial muscle this gives Moyes should make him more than competitive in the market this summer, even if he can’t offer Champions League football for a year at least.
Among those we thought might be making way for an influx of new talent was Robin van Persie, the striker whom Ferguson hired for his last season and who rewarded the veteran coach with a title-winning feast of goals. But van Persie has strongly denied rumors of a cool relationship with Moyes and declared a readiness to see out his career at United.
Wayne Rooney has already settled his long-term future by signing a big-money contract that will keep him at Old Trafford until he’s 34. So it looks like United will be going into the new era with these two, plus Danny Welbeck. So much for the talk of revolution that has followed some of United’s poorer displays this season, including the 2-0 defeat in Greece at the end of last month that means they will have to come from behind on Wednesday to stay in the current Champions League.
A lack of European distraction has definitely helped Liverpool to keep their sharpness to the latter stages of the domestic campaign. As Jose Mourinho has pointed out, Rodgers also gets more time on the training field to prepare his men for games and, if we see all this at Old Trafford on Sunday, it could get messy again for Moyes. Rooney and van Persie both owe him big performances. But Suarez and Sturridge have been supplying those all season.
When you speak of money in soccer, as highlighted in the context of United, you think of City, but it doesn’t buy a guaranteed ticket to the latter stages of the Champions League, as Manuel Pellegrini’s expensively assembled team discovered in going out on a 4-1 aggregate in Barcelona. One minute, it seemed, City were being talked about in terms of a trophy quadruple. Now some are saying Pellegrini must add the Premier League title to the recently acquired Capital One Cup to save his job.
It can be a crazy game, but I don’t think it’s quite that crazy. It could be, though, that City’s Abu Dhabi owners and former Barcelona executive will have to show a little patience, because Mourinho’s Chelsea now seem a better bet for the title than anyone at any previous stage of this exciting and entertaining season. City must keep their hopes alive by winning at Hull. Liverpool can make a deafening statement at Old Trafford. There are surely a few twists and turns to come.