Premier League has many reasons to celebrate Man United-Liverpool
There are two big reasons for the Premier League to have an extra spring in its step this weekend. One is the qualification of three clubs -- same as Spain's benchmark La Liga, though one fewer than Germany's Bundesliga -- for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. The other is a renewal of English soccer's most bitter rivalry, by which, of course, is when Manchester United battle Liverpool.
Why does it matter so such when these reds from cities less than an hour apart are thrown together? Those of an historical bent will tell you it's to do with competition between their business communities in the late nineteenth century and the building of the 36-mile Manchester Ship Canal, which enabled ocean-going vessels to bypass the port of Liverpool and enrich the inland city instead.
While no doubt there's truth in that, it doesn't explain why there's little or no hatred between Everton and Manchester City, or Everton and United, or, for that matter, Liverpool and City -- even when those clubs were fighting it out for the Premier League title towards the end of last season.
No, the most convincing reason for the descent of red mist when United meet Liverpool is that Liverpool, as rebuilt by Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley from December 1959, became the most consistently successful institution in the English game -- and that it was Sir Alex Ferguson's United who replaced them or, to use the phrase attributed to Ferguson, "knocked them off their ------- perch."
There will be questions asked, then, of Brendan Rodgers this weekend. Defeat for Liverpool this weekend would leave them 10 points adrift of their arch-rivals and put Champions League qualification even further out of sight.
"The game against Manchester United is perfect for us and we hope to take confidence and spirit into the game," Rodgers told reporters on Saturday. "It's more than a football game - you're representing a city and a group of supporters where there has been a great rivalry over many years. You've just got to find the ways to refocus the minds of the players, forget and learn from the experiences, and look at it as an opportunity to go and get onto a winning run.
Rodgers added: "You have to be [determined] when you're at a club this size. The expectancy is what you want. We're very much focused on improving that performance level. We know that we can do that - we can put a run of results together that can keep us climbing. But really we want to keep improving on the performance level. As my teams have shown, we'll get better as the season goes on but we want to start that sooner rather than later."
Talk of change is also in the air around Anfield, even though it's only seven months since Rodgers had Liverpool challenging so impressively for what would have been their first English title since 1990.
At least the Old Trafford fixture is the kind a coach wants when the pressure is on: One that Liverpool are not expected to win, United having strung together five wins under Louis van Gaal (without playing especially well), but one that carries an emotional prize greater than three ordinary points.
It's been a tough season for Rodgers, who will still have to carry the extra burden of Europe because third place earned Liverpool participation in the Europa League's knockout stages, and, if the massive hole left in his team by the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona is evident once more in Manchester, it won't get any easier.
Some still can't see past Chelsea for the title and it might even be that their chances were advanced by Manchester City's win in Rome. Liverpool, after all, benefited last season from the absence of European soccer. This season, now, City and Chelsea are on a level playing-field but van Gaal wants more to change that for Manchester United. The 63-year-old, ever the perfectionist, admitted this week he "dreamed" of replacing Chelsea at the top of the table, and Michael Carrick thinks that is possible.
"If we are in and around the top by Christmas or January then we are right in there with a chance," Carrick told United Review. "(Last weekend) was a big weekend with Chelsea losing at Newcastle and other results going for us. I think with this squad that we have, which is gradually improving and building, anything can happen."
Carrick added: "It is all won and lost in the last two or three months of the season, so the aim is definitely to challenge. In seasons when we have been successful, there have been periods when things haven't gone for us but we've found a way to get through it. I just feel the same as before - if we are near the top of the table after Christmas then we have a great shout of achieving something with the squad we've got."
Information from FOXSoccer.com's newswire services contributed to this report.