Even with seven months of the season to go, Liverpool’s clash with Manchester United is being billed as make-or-break for the team’s Premier League title hopes.
Two league losses in a row – taking the early total to four – have left last season’s runners up seven points adrift of three-time defending champion United.
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And for once, not even Europe is not providing a salvation for Rafa Benitez’s side – Liverpool is in danger of missing out on the lucrative Champions League knockout phase after a second straight loss Tuesday.
Not since 1987 has Liverpool endured a four-match losing sequence and it’s being left to stalwart defender Jamie Carragher to rally the battered team, which could again be without the dynamic, but bruised, duo of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres on Sunday.
“Beating Manchester United could be just the boost we need, we always bounce back because that us what we are about,” Carragher said. “We’ve got a lot of fight and character and will want to show that against United, particularly after what happened against Lyon.
“We’re going through a tough patch but we’ve been through them before and we’ll bounce back, there’s no doubt about that. It’s always a great game against United, and that could be what we need – if we win it will give everyone a massive lift.”
Liverpool beat United home-and-away last season but was still beaten to the title by four points.
“I think form goes out of the window in these games,” United defender Rio Ferdinand said. “We all know that when there’s a big rivalry between two teams, whether it’s a derby or a big cup clash, form doesn’t come into it.
“It all comes down to who performs best on the day and that’s what we’re looking to do.”
While United has also experienced a sluggish start to the season, Alex Ferguson’s side has still managed to eke out victories and lead Chelsea by a point.
The Red Devils are also on course for the Champions League knockout stage, preparing for Sunday’s trip to Anfield with a third straight win at CSKA Moscow even after leaving Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung to rest back in Manchester.
Michael Owen made a late cameo from the bench in the 1-0 win in Moscow and the former Liverpool striker will be hoping for a rare United start at the club that turned him into one of the world’s top players as a teenager.
There could be a hostile reception awaiting Owen, who needs to improve his scoring form to force his way back into the England team.
“I am human. I would prefer people to sit down and recognize what you did for them and for the team in years gone past,” Owen said. “But I am pretty realistic as well and now that I am playing for their archrivals.”
Both teams are looking for a record 19th league title, a year after United matched Liverpool’s haul of 18.
Second-place Chelsea can put the pressure on United with a victory over Blackburn Saturday after losing at Aston Villa last weekend.
Salomon Kalou’s two goals Wednesday helped revive the Blues on Wednesday as they moved to the verge of the Champions League knockout phase by beating Atletico Madrid 4-0.
“It’s good to get confidence back by winning, and everyone gave his best today and we have the result in the end,” Kalou said. “After the disappointment of last week (against Villa) we had the opportunity to show it was a mistake.”
Tottenham, which is two points adrift of Chelsea, is also in action on Saturday, hosting Stoke. Fourth-place Arsenal is at West Ham on Sunday.
Portsmouth travels to Hull on Saturday chasing a second win of the season that could lift Paul Hart’s side off the bottom of the table.
Also Saturday, Birmingham hosts Sunderland, Wigan is at Lancashire rival Burnley and Wolverhampton takes on Aston Villa in the Midlands derby.
On Sunday, Manchester City plays Fulham and Bolton hosts Everton.