Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has emphatically backed Steven Gerrard’s commitment to the club, as he weighs up whether to return the 34-year-old to the starting lineup for Sunday’s key showdown against Manchester United at Anfield. Gerrard has not started for five weeks, during which time Liverpool have continued their fine form to move within two points of Sunday’s opponents in the final Champions League place.

With Gerrard ending his long association with Liverpool in the summer and moving to LA Galaxy, many have suggested that Liverpool are now better off without the midfielder and questioned how he will react to being left out of the side. But Rodgers has praised Gerrard’s professionalism.

“I think it’s been really unfair on the boy,” he said “This is a guy who has been, and still is, a wonderful player. When he was out injured, we had people trying to sensationalize a story about him getting in the team or not, but Steven was unfit.

“People were trying to write him off when he was not even back fit. He’s back fit now, he’s available, and I can tell you, he’s a guy who is totally committed to the team, he’s a fan of this football club first and foremost. He’s like any other player -- of course he’d like to play. But his support for guys like Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen that are in the team, has been fantastic. And his support to me as a captain has been incredible.”

Gerrard made his return off the substitute’s bench against Swansea City on Monday, with Liverpool scoring the game’s only goal shortly after his arrival on the pitch. That victory made it 10 wins and three draws from 13 matches since Liverpool lost 3-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford in mid-December, giving them the chance to usurp their great rivals in the top four on Sunday.

Manchester United, meanwhile, have stuttered through much of Louis van Gaal’s first season in charge, picking up results needed to stay in the Champions League places, but failing to impress with their performances. But they upped their level considerably last Sunday when beating Tottenham 3-0, with all three goals coming in the first 45 minutes.

That win began a run of matches in which United were set to take on four of the Premier League’s top six, with perhaps none more significant than that against fifth-placed Liverpool. Van Gaal admits that the trip to Anfield could be pivotal in the battle to secure a Champions League berth, and explained that assistant coach Ryan Giggs and chef Mike Donnelly have been schooling the squad on the size of the rivalry between England’s two most successful clubs.

“We are in a very crucial stage,” he told MUTV. “We cannot lose otherwise Liverpool will come above us and that would not be good. Therefore, it is very crucial.”

“Ryan has given the analysis of Liverpool but also Mike is saying it every day to the player. It’s important because it’s part of the preparation. These kind of people -- Giggs, Mike the cook -- transfer matches to the players also. I think every player knows the importance of this game.”

Van Gaal will again be without striker Robin van Persie, while defenders Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw are only fit enough for a place on the bench. As for Liverpool, Mario Balotelli is back available after injury, and midfielder Lucas Leiva faces a late fitness test after six weeks out with an abductor problem.

Kickoff time: 9:30 a.m. EDT

TV channel: NBCSN

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra