Encounter with the Devils - A Preview

Liverpool vs Manchester United

Liverpool host arch rivals Manchester United in a Premier League clash on Sunday in what could turn out to be a season-defining encounter for both teams.

Manchester United currently lead the pack and are favourites for the title, especially after Arsenal stuttered once again in closing the gap between them with a goalless draw against Sunderland. Liverpool are presently seventh in the table as Bolton Wanderers overtook them with their 3-2 victory over Aston Villa. With Birmingham winning the Carling Cup, Liverpool will need to finish fifth or win the Europa League this season to qualify for the second tier European competition – certainly not a good position to be in for a club aspiring for a Champions League spot.

Both teams come into this encounter off league defeats – Liverpool had a dismal day at office as they lost 3-1 to a relegation threatened West Ham while Manchester United lost 2-1 at Chelsea after throwing away a lead. A second consecutive defeat will be a huge blow for either team; on the other hand, a victory over one’s arch rivals is the perfect tonic for dipping morale in a football team. So, given the rewards at stake, not to mention the pride and bragging rights associated with this historic encounter, both managers should be looking to take all three points from this match. Kenny Dalglish also has the added incentive of denting Manchester United’s bid for a record 19th league title but as he himself said, “It’s the biggest game but only because it’s the next game.”

Kenny Dalglish’s first match in his second stint as Liverpool manager was an FA Cup tie against Manchester United, a match which Liverpool lost by a solitary goal. However, two things should be taken into consideration before reading anything into that result – firstly, Dalglish had hardly had any time to set up the team his own way and secondly, a controversial penalty (which resulted in the goal) and a sending-off for Steven Gerrard with almost an hour remaining on the clock. Those two events meant that even before the Liverpool manager had started to wear the gloves, his hands were tied behind his back as he tried to prevent a disaster. In fact, Manchester United failed to utilise their numerical advantage any further as the Liverpool players put in an excellent performance on the pitch. It is that uncanny invigorating and morale-boosting attitude that has enabled Dalglish to transform this Liverpool squad and despite the shocking loss against West Ham last weekend, there is still a positive current flowing through this Liverpool team.

Kenny Dalglish’s options have been boosted by the return to training of January signing Andy Carroll. After a record British transfer fee of 35 million pounds was spent to bring the young striker from Newcastle United, Liverpool fans the world over have been waiting in eager anticipation for his Liverpool debut. On paper, his partnership up front with Luis Suarez, a classic big man – little man combination, looks deadly and with United missing Vidic and probably Ferdinand at the back, Andy Carroll could be King Kenny’s trump card for this match even if he comes off the bench. Liverpool are expected to have Raul Meireles, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio back from injury and with Martin Kelly out long term with a hamstring injury, Glen Johnson is expected to slot in at the right back position, or as a right wing-back if Dalglish decides to go with three central defenders.

Manchester United also have some personnel worries, albeit the depth of their squad and the versatility of some of their players often enable them to plug the gaps easily. The biggest question mark is on their defence – Vidic is suspended following his double booking against Chelsea in mid-week and Rio Ferdinand unlikely to recover full fitness from his calf injury. With Johnny Evans out with an ankle injury, Alex Ferguson may have to play Wes Brown and Chris Smalling as central defenders, which, with all due respect, is nowhere as threatening as a Vidic-Ferdinand partnership. Of course, all this Brown-Smalling talk may just be another of Ferguson’s oft-repeated mind games but the fact remains that Manchester United’s best defender over the last few years is suspended for this key clash. Patrice Evra is also doubtful for the match but may be rushed back to avoid an almost new backline.

The early kick-off on Sunday thus promises to be a war with several personal battles – Suarez vs. Smalling, Carragher vs. Rooney / Berbatov, Fletcher vs. Gerrard to name a few – but the biggest one of them all will be the one between the two men in the dugouts. For the neutrals, it should be an electrifying experience but for the fans of Liverpool and Manchester United, it will be a battle to decide the bragging rights till these two teams meet again in the near future.

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