Manchester United visit Anfield this Saturday in what is always one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures of any season. This years home clash with our bitterest rivals comes with the 2008-09 seaon still very much in its embroynic stage. So just how much will this weekends result, and the performance of both sides, inform us about this seasons expectations and the chances of a sustained Anfield title challenge?
This most recent international break has perhaps, unusually, come as a beneficial interruption to the Reds season. Despite some decent early season results, which leaves us sitting second in the league and with a place in the Champions League group stages secure, it is plain for all to see that perfomances have been well below par. Whilst this can certainly be viewed as a positive, with the likes of Man United and the start of the Champions league up next, performances will have to improve. Perhaps the international break will provide an opportunity to regain some lost form.
The break has also potentially come at an ideal time for the present injury situation. Injuries to undoubtedly the two most dangerous players in the squad, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, is probably an unresolvable problem. Despite the signifiant investment in new players with the arrivals of, amongst others, Robbie Keane, Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera in recent years, players of the calibre of Gerrard and Torres will always remain irreplacable. So the opportunity provided by the internationals to get both players fit for this weekends mamoth clash could prove vital. Trying to out do Man United with a fully fit squad is one problem, but doing so without our two best attacking players could be doubly difficult.
Unfortunatley Torres appears unlikely to be fully recovered from his abductor injury, picked up against Aston Villa, in order to make the game, Whilst Gerrard, although far more likely to figure, remains a doubt. If the match does come too soon for Torres, David Ngog appears to be the closet like-for-like replacement in the squad. Ngog replaced Torres against Aston Villa to make his Premiership debut and looked promising at times, if a little light weight. However, his lack of experience and maturity seems to make him unliklely to lead the line in such a big game. Alternatively Rafa is more likely to place greater responsibility on Robbie Keane as the main striker, or opt for a complete tactical re-think. Whats certain, however, is the potential loss of the goals provided by Torres and Gerrard will transfer a heavier goalscoring burden on the likes of Keane, Kuyt and Babel. This is an issue which has already been highlighted again this season; however there can be no greater stage for the rest of the squad to put that issue straight than this weekends grudge match.
Matches such as these are almost exclusively intensely tight affairs and it is generally the centre of the field that the battle is won and lost. I would expect midfield to be the key area yet again this weekend. For this reason the timely return of Javier Mascherano from Olympic duty could be critical to Liverpool’s chances. Mascherano was at his terrier-like best against Villa with a man-of-the-match performance and he will of course have an added incentive after events at Old Trafford last season. If the likes of Mascherano and Xabi Alonso can stop the Man United midfield playing – a midfield which is of course minus Cristiano Ronaldo – it will provide the perfect base for the creative players in the team to perform.
This is of course easier said than done. Whilst the Liverpool players must also overcome the mental barrier created by a recent sequence of poor results against Man United on home turf. A similar situation to that which faced the Reds prior to the Champions League second leg at Stamford Bridge in April When it was well documented that Liverpool had previosuly failed to register a single goal away from home against Chelsea under Benitez – with Liverpool of course socring twice on that occassion. This Saturday the Liverpool sqaud is faced with a similar problem but will also be actuley aware that they are capable of overcoming such barriers.
In tense games such as these you often get the sense that one goal may be enough. It is therefore important that Liverpool register the first blow. Both defences are likely to be on top, unless an event such as a sending off or a very early goal helps to change the complexion. A nil-nil or low scoring draw is perhaps the most likely result. So a moment of brilliance from a Gerrard or a Keane, or a Rooney or a Berbatov, or perhaps more realistically a defensive error or a peice of quick thinking, would be the most likely way to decide the match.
I feel that a tight draw remains the most realistic result. And if Liverpool do – as appears probable – go into the game without a fully fit Gerrard and Torres most of the fans would probably accept a draw. But there is surely more to be gained by playing with a postive attitude looking for a win, whilst potentailly losing the game; than there is in taking a more cautious approach and accepting a point. The points won and lost from this match will not determine the end of season position of either side. What is to be gained however is the a the psychological advantange of winning such a tense and prestigous match up. If Liverpool are to truely challenge for the Premier League title this season it is a psychological advantage such as this so early in the season which could be decisive.