Liverpool, United set for emotional EPL match
Handshakes could overshadow football for the second straight Premier League weekend when Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra meet for the first time since an angry pre-match clash last season inflamed tensions between English giants Liverpool and Manchester United.
Sunday's match between the country's two most successful clubs will already be an emotional occasion, given that it's Liverpool's first at Anfield since the release of the Hillsborough report last week that revealed damning new evidence about Britain's worst sporting disaster.
A series of tributes are planned and with players under orders to respect the occasion, all eyes will be on whether Evra and Suarez shake hands in the traditional pre-match protocol following their racism feud that erupted last year.
The last time they came face to face - at Old Trafford in February - Suarez shunned the outstretched hand of Evra, the player he was found guilty of repeatedly racially abusing during a Premier League match four months earlier.
An already-hostile atmosphere ratcheted up a few notches, with Evra initially physically confronting the Uruguay striker before the pair clashed again outside the dressing rooms at halftime - forcing police to intervene.
United manager Alex Ferguson called Suarez ''a disgrace'' and said he shouldn't play for Liverpool again, while then-Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was ridiculed for failing to condemn his player for his actions.
More than the Suarez-Evra situation, which comes a week after Anton Ferdinand failed to shake hands with John Terry in a Queens Park Rangers-Chelsea game to continue another racism row, it's the potential fans' reaction to the Hillsborough tributes that has dominated the pre-match agenda this week.
''I am aware of the sensitivity of the day. Everybody is,'' United captain Nemanja Vidic said. ''All over the world they will be watching this game.
''It is probably the biggest derby and we have to show we are capable of keeping a good atmosphere and being a good example to the kids. We both have a history and we're both respected. We have to keep it like that.''
Ferguson said United are ''totally supportive'' of Liverpool since the new findings about Hillsborough, which exonerated Liverpool fans from any blame for the death of 96 of the club's supporters in the infamous stadium crush in 1989.
''It is going to be a very emotional day on Sunday and we will support them in every way we can,'' Ferguson said. ''We understand what those families must have felt when they got that report.''
On the eve of United's 4-0 win over Wigan on Saturday, Ferguson called for an end to the tasteless chanting about Hillsborough and the 1958 Munich air crash - in which seven United players were killed - that has marred recent matches between Liverpool and United.
Yet, a section of United fans sang a chant including the lines ''always the victims'' and ''it's never your fault'' early in the match. While it is believed the song was in reference to Suarez and not Hillsborough, the incident still left a sour taste and led to United condemning the perpetrators.
''I was disappointed to hear it - it is a minority,'' Ferguson said.
Rival captains Steven Gerrard and Vidic will release 96 balloons shortly before kick-off in memory of those who died at Hillsborough, while there will be several crowd mosaics and a banner with the words ''The Truth'' will be displayed at the famous Kop end.
''It is our first home game and the clubs have been working very hard to commemorate the work which has gone on with all the families,'' Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said.
The match has huge significance in football terms, too.
After its worst start to a league season in 50 years, Liverpool is languishing just above the bottom three with just two points from four games.
United, meanwhile, has won its last three league matches to lie a point behind early leader Chelsea and a point ahead of Arsenal and defending champion Manchester City.
City and Arsenal face each other at Etihad Stadium on Sunday with their unbeaten starts on the line, while Chelsea is at home to Stoke on Saturday.
At the other end of the standings, Southampton looks to pick up its first points of the season when it hosts Aston Villa and also on Saturday, it's: Swansea vs. Everton, West Bromwich Albion vs. next-to-last Reading, West Ham vs. Sunderland and Wigan vs. Fulham.
Sunday's other matches see Newcastle host Norwich and QPR travel across London to play Tottenham, which is seeking a second straight win under new manager Andre Villas-Boas.