Which rival will come out victorious?

BY Jamie Trecker • September 20, 2012

There is an ancient Chinese proverb — a curse, in some quarters — that reads: “may you live in interesting times.”

Liverpool and Manchester United, who will meet Sunday (LIVE on FOX Soccer, 8:25 AM ET and repeated on FOX) are indeed in the midst of such times, and it’s hard to think either of them are enjoying it very much.

The clash, followed by another blockbuster game in Manchester City vs. Arsenal (FOX Soccer, 11 AM ET,) is a pivotal moment for both clubs in this very early Premier League season. The rivalry is one of the greatest in world football, colored by years of enmity.

The vitriol has been ugly: Liverpool fans have taunted Manchester United fans for years with chants that reference the Munich air disaster. United fans in turn have taunted them with chants about Hillsborough. And this week, Ferguson called for an end to it all, prodded by a damning report on the Hillsborough tragedy that prompted a government apology after evidence of a police cover-up.

Across England last week, scores of teams – including Liverpool’s cross-town rivals, Everton – participated in ceremonies that commemorated the 96 who lost their lives. Ferguson was at Goodison Park, stood and applauded in the crowd.

Whether or not this is a true turning point in the relationship between two of England’s greatest clubs remains to be seen. What is apparent is that both teams are going through a transitional period on the field. Neither are the world-beaters they once were. Both teams have some serious rebuilding to do. And for Liverpool, in particular, the process has been painful.

A reserve Liverpool side struggled against minnows Young Boys in Bern on Thursday in the Europa League, finally pulling out a 5-3 road win thanks to Jonjo Shelvey, but not after displaying many of the failings that have plagued the team this season. New manager Brendan Rodgers is eager to mold the Reds into the slick-passing side that his Swansea was last season. The problem is that his midfield is slow and his defense is slower. Pepe Reina hasn’t been able to dig Liverpool out of the hole this year either as the keeper’s form has suffered a slump.

The Reds are off to their worst start in fifty years, without a single win to their name as yet and a series of damaging losses. Against an Arsenal side that has well-known woes of its own, the Reds looked comically overmatched. Against West Brom – and their old first-team manager, Steve Clarke – they looked like lambs to the slaughter.

Many expected this: Rodgers is a young manager overseeing an iconic team that has become better known for winning cups than major titles. It has dealt with tremendous squad turnover and was derailed last season by a disastrous stint under their iconic former player, Kenny Dalglish. It has been in its current position – flirting with relegation – for parts of the last two seasons and it is a mighty comedown for a team that truly does bleed red.

Liverpool will get little respite against a United side that, while not as potent as in years past, is by far the better team. United has one of the best attacks in the league, headed now by Robin van Persie, and has a remarkable ability to grind out wins in startlingly ugly fashion.

What United are no longer is a side that inspires fear. The fact that they remain reliant on the old hand Paul Scholes is an indication of how far off the pace United are in comparison to the rest of Europe. Wayne Rooney has declined in stature – he will miss this game with a leg injury – and the fact that he remains so vital to the club’s fortunes is just as telling.

Shinji Kagawa has the power to be a true star, however, and United do have that uncanny ability to will themselves to wins. But even the most fervent fans have to admit there is an air of mustiness around the Red Devils: they are not a team, one imagines, can beat Barcelona or Real Madrid, nor are they a side that matches up well with Chelsea or, gasp, Manchester City. In fact, while Manchester United won against Galatasaray in the Champions League on Wednesday, it was a performance that marked among its poorest of the season, displaying many of the flaws that have fans worrying if they are behind the times.

And so: things are interesting Sunday. The game is expected to be classic blood and thunder, sound and fury. But what does it signify? The answer is: potentially perilously little. Liverpool are not going to contend for the Premier League title this season and perhaps not even next. United are going to finish in the top four but are hardly the favorites.

It’s an irony that the greatest rivalry in the English game has been summarily reduced to little more than bragging rights. But these are interesting times, and fans have a right to ponder the full meaning of that ancient phrase. Or, is that a curse?