Clash of strikers highlights must-see United-Liverpool
In the week that their fans pledged to work together to campaign for fairer away ticket prices (the matter having been brought to a head by almost 1,000 Manchester City fans refusing to pay $100 for seats at Arsenal), Liverpool and Manchester United will renew hostilities in Sunday's early Premier League kickoff. In the last few seasons, the question that featured most consistently in the build-up to one of these games was: is this old rivalry still the same as it was? To which the answer, despite Liverpool's relative league position, is simply "yes," leaving us plenty of time to focus on the real question: how will the league's two highest scorers fare?
There's a lot more to it than that, granted, but however absorbing the midfield tussle, it will be hard not to fix your eyes on one of Luis Suarez (15 league goals) and Robin van Persie (16) in anticipation of something you'll be glad you saw live in real time.
For Liverpool, which split the points 6-24 with United at Old Trafford over the last 10 years, this is an opportunity to prove the strength of Brendan Rodgers' emerging side to a degree that recent wins over Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Sunderland cannot, no matter how emphatic the scorelines (Liverpool scored 10 goals without reply against that trio, Suarez bagging five of them).
Five weeks into the season, Manchester United arrived at Anfield to face a winless Liverpool, played as poorly as you are likely to see even against 10 men, and made off with the points thanks to a late Van Persie penalty; there will be no comfort in another hard-luck story at this stage of the season. Liverpool has lost just three of the last 16 league matches, and although Suarez has inevitably been at the center of it all, Rodgers is adamant he has brought the rest of the side on and up a level.
Tuning in late, you can usually judge a Liverpool match with one look at Suarez's face: does he look like the only sane man in the meeting where everyone else decided Brad Pitt should do that Chanel ad, or is he grinning like a Cheshire cat? The former seems less frequent of late, as he looks more like a forward benefiting from team play than one making up for its poverty.
"If you look at the first six months," he said of his reign so far, "I believe there has been improvement in a lot of the players. You look at Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique since the start of the season, and we have added value back to them, absolutely."
Although Rodgers is popularly characterized as soccer's own David Brent, all textbook jargon and uninhibited self-confidence, it is true that Henderson has become a reliable contributor where once he looked a bewildered passenger. Over the festive period, Downing's chance-creation stats more than quadrupled. Both players have been offered to other clubs since Rodgers took charge and thus they look revitalized by their selection in the positions they want to play.
If Sir Alex Ferguson has previously taken criticism for relying on aging players in key positions, Liverpool should also be pleased by the long-term contracts signed by young players such as defender Andre Wisdom, set to play Sunday, and Raheem Sterling.
"It's hard for managers to put youngsters in," Wisdom told the Liverpool Echo after signing his new deal. "But [Rodgers] has given Raheem, Suso and myself a lot of games."
Talk of a second-place finish is fanciful, but seeds are budding.
There is ammunition enough, then, to tempt Liverpool to play an outright attacking game at Old Trafford on Sunday, whether that means fielding Suarez alongside Daniel Sturridge or keeping the new arrival back for the latter stages of the second half. Manchester United has conceded more goals than any other team in the top half of the Premier League, and only Swansea City, in ninth, has leaked more at home. Reviewing the goals Newcastle United scored at Old Trafford last month, it is not at all difficult to imagine Suarez running directly into the same kinds of position.
Although Ferguson has described the derby game against Liverpool as "intense and emotional" and reveled in the grandstand finishes that his side has been producing --- "At the end of the day, the finish to these games sends everybody home absolutely over the moon," he told Inside United -- he will not want another frenetic we're-gonna-score-one-more-than-you encounter, even if Nemanja Vidic is likely to be back in the center of United's defense.
The Manchester United manager used his pre-match press conference to talk about the $38.5 million paid for Van Persie, who will play without Wayne Rooney, still returning to fitness.
"It was a lot of money for a player in the last year of his contract," Ferguson said, "but you either want him or you don't. You have to pay the price that the club are sticking out for, whether it is one year on his contract, two or three.
"We wanted him badly, so we were prepared to go the extra mile. Any player coming to us for the first year, you never know for sure ... but what we did know was that we were signing a very good player."
Van Persie, last month's Premier League player of the month, has continually helped United rescue matches this season. It is not only sides climbing the table that covet statement results, mind you. A simple and straightforward win over Liverpool, in which Van Persie's goals allow his team to control the game rather than clutch it back would do Ferguson very nicely.