You may have heard there’s a football match happening this weekend, a pretty significant one as it happens.
This Sunday, English football’s two biggest clubs face-off knowing that the winner will steal a march in this, a wide-open title race.
As with any clash between Liverpool and Manchester United, the fixture is being hyped like no other.
In recent years Super Sunday gave way to Red Monday, while others lazily christened the encounter England’s El Classico. For all the razzmatazz, Scousers vs. Mancs seems more appropriate for what remains a northwest grudge match…
There is no denying the rich history of these respective clubs nor the deep-rooted dislike bordering on hatred. Even so, this remains one of sport’s most curious rivalries. Why? Because truthfully these footballing powerhouses have rarely fought it out to be crowned champions.
As successful as they’ve been, their respective periods of dominance came while the other has toiled.
A host of mitigating circumstances, however, mean this strangest of seasons could finally put them on a collision course once again. That’s a prospect the media are salivating over.
Pick up any newspaper in the last few weeks and the delight at United’s recent resurgence is seemingly unchecked. It’s hard to remember a love-in quite so pronounced.
Here are a few highlights, or lowlights depending on your disposition:
“Getting Wan-Bissaka forward, trusting Pogba, being ruthless and improving fitness: Solskjaer deserves the plaudits for taking Man United to joint top” – Daily Mail
“Title challenge no longer a dream as Man United prove credentials” – Daily Mirror
“The United curve continues to move in the right direction” – The Athletic
“Man United solve massive problem by hijacking Liverpool plan” – Daily Express
Talk about laying it on thick. One can only imagine what odious fanboy Neil Custis has been writing over at a certain other tabloid…
Pundits too have been quick to talk up United’s credentials, including ex-Liverpool stars no less.
Danny Murphy bizarrely declared: “It hurts me to say this as an ex-Liverpool man but welcome back Manchester United.”
Elsewhere Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Ian Wright, Paul Ince and Paul Merson have thrown their weight behind an unlikely title charge, in spite of a recent League Cup humbling at the hands of Manchester City. The former’s jousting with Sky colleague and Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher has further fanned the flames.
Throw in Jurgen Klopp’s entirely reasonable query as to the number penalties awarded to those down the East Lancs Road and you have a delicious melting pot.
The desperation to put Liverpool and Manchester United on an equal footing is borne from a lack of battles between the two. For while every fixture is fiercely contested amid a cauldron-like atmosphere, the pair have finished a season as No. 1 and No. 2 in England just five times.
It’s a tussle the Premier League and its global audience have been largely deprived of. As such it’s one a not-so-silent majority are willing to happen.
Let’s take a closer look at the rare occasions on which both sides have competed for the title.
The first came in 1946/47, when George Kay’s Liverpool pipped their nearest challengers by a single point.
A team containing legendary names such as Billy Liddell and Albert Stubbins recovered from a 5-0 trouncing at Old Trafford in September to deal a knockout blow to one of Matt Busby’s earliest sides come May. The 1-0 victory at home, courtesy of a Stubbins strike, proved decisive.
It was 17 years before the two battled it out again, by which time Busby was facing off against Bill Shankly in the Reds’ dugout. Again, Liverpool won out, clinching the league by four points having defeated United home and away.
A further 16 years passed before they went head-to-head once more, during which time they had won seven titles between them (Liverpool five, United two). A workmanlike United team managed by Dave Sexton rose from ninth to second, due in part to the impact of new signing Ray Wilkins.
Still Liverpool, by now firmly established as England’s dominant force, beat them to the biggest prize – Bob Paisley’s men sealing the title by two points.
The modern rivalry truly began with the arrival of Alex Ferguson who famously vowed to knock the Reds off their perch. It’s a nice soundbite but Liverpool’s fall from grace was self-inflicted rather than masterminded.
Even so a host of signings allowed the Scot to mount a serious tilt at the title in his first full season at the helm in 1987/88. Unfortunately for him, they never once topped the league as arguably the best Liverpool team in history, and certainly the most entertaining, romped to the title.
Tempers flared in a memorable draw at Anfield that April. Despite leading 3-1 at half-time Liverpool were pegged back by 10-man United, whose manager was left incensed at a controversial red card handed to Colin Gibson.
As Ferguson recounted the incident in a post-match radio interview Reds boss Kenny Dalglish, carrying his new-born daughter, famously chimed: “You’d be better off talking to my baby. She’s only six weeks old but you’d get more sense from her than him.”
Finally, to 2008/09 and the last time these two juggernauts squared up for Premier League supremacy. It was the year of the ‘Rafa Rant’, one of the biggest myths in recent memory.
The narrative is Liverpool collapsed after their manager took aim at his counterpart in a frenzied tirade about scheduling, officialdom and more. In actuality, his points were made calmly without even a hint of mental fragility. They were also valid.
Despite Liverpool winning 10 of their remaining 11 games, including a 4-1 victory at Old Trafford, the desperation to paint Benitez as Kevin Keegan Mk.2 took hold. This ignores the fact that at the time of the infamous press conference the eventual champions had two games in hand. Why let that get in the way of a good story?
Much was made of the coverage afforded United’s triumph in 1977, when a Jimmy Greenhoff winner defeated the league champions. The Reds would go on to win their first European Cup days later, only for the BBC to dedicate greater airtime to the domestic feat.
The most memorable final, for all the wrong reasons, is probably the 1996 encounter. A dreadful game – settled by an Eric Cantona winner four minutes from time – facilitated years of mockery for a Liverpool squad who decided to roll up to Wembley in questionable white Armani suits.
Overall, that’s slim pickings for two of the biggest supported clubs in the world, as well as the broadcasters denied what in their eyes remains the ultimate clash of the titans.
The only other rivalry comparable when it comes to television interest is that between Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have posted one-two finishes in 12 of the last 20 seasons, whilst contesting a further two cup finals in that same period.
And so to Sunday and what many believe (or hope) could be a season-defining game.
That narrative ignores an in-form Manchester City side with games in-hand. Indeed, Pep Guardiola’s team are purring and could prove the biggest threat to this battle of the heavyweights, blowing both sides out of the water.
They’ll prove unpopular party poopers in that scenario.
For an out-of-sorts Liverpool, it’s an opportunity to reassert some dominance. It’s not unreasonable for a side that has amassed 196 points across two campaigns to take exception to the very notion that United could steal their crown.
While the Red Devils have got their act together, Liverpool’s injuries and profligacy have been just as significant to any closing of the gap. The weekend is a chance to prove a chasm still exists, whether or not that is reflected in current league standings.
A dominant victory and performance could not only ignite our season but quieten some of the excitement surrounding United. Who knows, Rio Ferdinand may even slow down on the tweets.
This will never not be a big game, but Liverpool would do well to remind the world the only threat to their crown comes from the other side of Manchester. They’ll do so by taking three decisive points.