By David Lynch
Though their dominance in other areas can hardly be questioned, the trepidation with which Manchester United approach games at Liverpool’s Anfield home has long been evident.
The Red Devils have not posted victory in the L4 postcode since 2007, a run which reflects their own cautious outlook on Merseyside as much as their great rivals’ quality on the pitch. Ever since Rafael Benitez masterminded Liverpool’s famous 4-1 victory at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson has appeared to fear a trip down the East Lancs Road.
United have been beaten on three occasions at Anfield since then, but it was perhaps last season’s 1-1 Premier League draw which best underlined Sir Alex’s attitude toward the fixture. On that day, the Scot left talismanic striker Wayne Rooney out of a line-up which contained five defenders, and selected an undoubtedly ‘safe’ midfield of Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park, Ryan Giggs and Ashley Young. Though the result suggests an even game, the visitors were fortunate to get away with a point thanks to some typically profligate Liverpool finishing and a set-piece goal.
Of course, United’s manager has not adopted such pragmatism with open arms; the wily 70-year-old has built teams which have often ruled through their fearless approach. But, in the current climate, the Glaswegian is also canny enough to realise that, with the unprecedented number of points needed to win the league nowadays, taking one point is certainly better than risking getting none at all.
The confidence accrued from keeping an unbeaten run going far outweighs the potential benefits of a fan-pleasing end-to-end battle. Winning Premier League titles in May is the sole aim, not providing a spectacle for supporters and pundits which could potentially backfire away from home.
However, whilst that may be true, the former Aberdeen boss has arguably paid too much deference to a side which has been there for the taking in recent times.
That United’s last win at Anfield came thanks to the attacking triumvirate of Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo says it all. The visitors may not need to give in to senseless attacking abandon, but playing to their undoubted strengths at the top of the field may just turn one point into three.
United will be without the injured Rooney this time around, but have never been better placed to make up for his absence with Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa ready to feature. With Nani, Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez also part of their attacking options, Sir Alex has an embarrassment of riches should he choose to go all out.
And there are more arguments for doing so than just his own squad strength: the Liverpool he is set to face on Sunday is vastly different from those of the past.
Perennial big-game goalscorer Dirk Kuyt, the man who has netted four goals in the Reds’ last three victories over United at Anfield, is now at Fenerbahce. Lucas Leiva, another source of regular frustration for the Red Devils’ midfield, will also be absent due to the thigh tear he picked up against Manchester City.
The Merseyside outfit do not boast the generally imperious backline of past seasons either, having looked increasingly shaky and unable to adapt to the new possession-based system which is being asked of them in recent games. There are few teams in English football as likely to punish hesitancy on the ball and absent-mindedness at the back as Manchester United.
Sir Alex might well take confidence from the fact that his opposite number, Brendan Rodgers, is also a new element in this fixture. The Northern Irishman has spoken impressively since joining the club and possesses an admirable philosophy on how football should be played. However, his words will count for little should he not get the results to back them up.
As a new face in this most historic of fixtures, he is likely to be as nervous as anyone else in the ground and, though the former Swansea manager will appreciate the good will a victory over United could earn him, he will be appropriately cautious about avoiding a demoralising defeat.
Whether that anxious atmosphere will transmit to the home fans, who should play a vital role on Sunday afternoon, is yet to be seen. The Kop may still embrace the confidence boost the arrival of a new manager often brings rather than the scepticism of an indifferent start to the season, but the groans which can at times meet mistakes will be particularly unwelcome here.
And that is something which the United boss must relish; a sharp start against a fragile Liverpool crowd and team could set his side on the way to a victory for the first time in five years.
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