United, Liverpool clash rich in history
One of the biggest games of the year comes to FOX Soccer on Sunday as Manchester United plays host to Liverpool (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 8 a.m. ET). It's a game rich in history and animosity, and will showcase two of the most potent strikers in the game: Manchester United’s Robin van Persie and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez.
At one time, this game was the derby match in English football, an angry clash between the land’s two most successful clubs. So intense is the rivalry between the teams that Sir Alex Ferguson’s mandate upon taking the reins at Old Trafford 27 years ago was to snap Liverpool’s record of First Division and Premier League titles.
Ferguson finally accomplished that goal two seasons ago, and in truth, the teams have been heading in opposite directions for some time. United have dominated the league since the 90s and show no signs of relinquishing their grip on the sport any time soon. In contrast, Liverpool haven't won a league title since 1990 and have seen most of their success come in domestic cup competitions. United are legitimate world-class superstars, dangerous in every game and every competition. Liverpool, sadly, seem faded. The Reds today are a smaller and more provincial side, a club with a rich and proud history — but fielding a team few currently fear.
Liverpool’s decline is a major talking point. They are unlikely at this juncture to qualify for Europe and they look a side that has a lot of work to do to become a Big Four team once again. The Reds are a staggering 21 points adrift of the top of the table and three games off a top four slot as Chelsea have a seven-point advantage and a game in hand.
Liverpool do boast a couple of genuine stars — Suarez and Steven Gerrard stand out — and a handful of players, like Jonjo Shelvey and Raheem Sterling that may develop into big-time players. But they’re not close to United’s collection of talent. United have, among many others, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and Ashley Young, and aren’t even considered a particularly vintage side.
Adding to Liverpool’s drama is that the club is still recovering from a series of spectacularly bad acquisitions — Andy Carroll is exhibit A, but neither Jordan Henderson nor Stewart Downing have impressed — and are going to struggle to retain Suarez’ services after this summer. Manager Brendan Rodgers has repeatedly hinted that Suarez may not be long for Anfield, noting that the Uruguayan wants and needs Champions League play. What this means is that Rodgers is likely overseeing a far longer and grittier rebuilding project than either he or his wealthy American owners expected. The pain may get worse before it gets better.
United isn’t full strength for this game: missing Sunday will be the injured Rooney, a man once considered pivotal to United’s fortunes. The striker is hardly in decline, but since the arrival of the red-hot van Persie, who has eight goals in his last eight league games, Rooney has not had to shoulder as much of the burden as in years past. In fact, with or without Rooney this United team is arguably the most potent attacking side the Red Devils have fielded since the late 1990s.
Where United have problems, atypically, is in the back. The once solid trio of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic has been hit hard by a combination of injuries and age, and their replacements have yet to fully gel. United also lack a goalkeeper with the presence of an Edwin van der Sar or Peter Schmeichel: neither David De Gea nor Anders Lindegaard have laid a solid claim on the number one job, and both men have been prone to bad gaffes.
This has led to a series of spectacular escapes for the Red Devils: no team this year has recovered as often from deficits as United. They are quick to concede goals – particularly on set pieces – but such is their power up top that they have been able to outscore most comers and come away with the points.
Sunday’s game is also likely to evoke memories of a particularly feisty FA Cup tie three years ago because of the man in the middle. Referee Howard Webb was at the center of a controversial 1-0 win in 2010 for United in which he awarded an early penalty and sent off Gerrard. The sense of injustice in the Liverpool camp was summed up by then Liverpool player Ryan Babel, who made international headlines when he tweeted a doctored photo of Webb wearing a Manchester United jersey.
While that match was often held up as 'evidence' of a supposed bias towards United, what is often forgotten is that the hero of the day was Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who made a series of saves that kept the scoreline closer than it truly was.
Reina is likely to be at the center of the action once again this weekend, facing the hottest and most dangerous striker in the English game. The result might just turn out to be the same.