Much can change on the field in nine months. In March, Liverpool traveled to the home of their great rivals Manchester United and came away with a 3-0 victory that, if anything, failed to fully reflect the gulf between the teams. It was a result that was hugely important in an immediate context, but also one that it was easy to suggest could signify a broader significance. The win vaulted Liverpool to second in the Premier League and furthered their credentials as contenders to win a first title in 24 years. For United, the then champions, it was perhaps the nadir of a woeful season under David Moyes and all-but ended their chances of claiming a Champions League berth.
The contrasting fortunes of both teams that season only added to the joy of Liverpool’s fans and to the anguish of those from their foes in England’s north west. For two decades Liverpool had endured Sir Alex Ferguson successfully “knocking Liverpool off their perch” to a degree that not even the Scot could have envisaged. When Ferguson’s haul began at Manchester United, Liverpool had 18 league titles, United just seven. When he eventually stepped aside, Liverpool’s total was unmoved but United had raced onto 20 to wrench away the title of England’s most successful club.
But with Ferguson gone, United had fallen spectacularly. And as they did so, Liverpool were enjoying their most promising season in years. Defying all expectations they surged toward the top of the league, playing a thrilling, attacking style that had even neutrals who grew resentful of their dominance in the 1980s cheering them on. Something approaching a power shift looked a distinct possibility.
A month after Liverpool humiliated their hosts at Old Trafford, United’s top-four failure was confirmed, and so was Moyes’s fate. A couple of weeks later came Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea and then his team’s capitulation against Crystal Palace to relinquish their big title chance. Those events proved the catalyst for a reversal of fortunes once more.
Spurred into action by the scale of the disaster post-Ferguson, Manchester United finally began spending sums befitting a club of their wealth and status. Similarly, as opposed to the trophy-less Moyes, the United board turned to a manager whose reputation was in line with that of the club. Things have hardly been smooth and progress has been gradual for Louis van Gaal since taking the reins, but under his charge the club has won five league games in a row for the first time since Ferguson was in charge and United were on the way to becoming champions. The prospects of a similar outcome this season remains fanciful, but the signs of improvement are clear. United go into their first meeting with Liverpool since that bleak March afternoon third in the table and in a strong position to ensure that their break from Europe’s elite is a most temporary one.
After Liverpool cruised to victory nine months ago, they sat 14 points clear of Manchester United in the table. They now trail by seven. As many defeats as wins from 15 games and ninth position in the standings, is not how Liverpool fans envisaged on building on the breakthrough of last season. Luis Suarez has gone, Daniel Sturridge has been perennially injured and an expensive collection of summer signings appear to have already lost the confidence of their coach. While United broke their transfer record to sign one of the world’s best players in Angel di Maria, Liverpool attempted to capitalize on finishing as runners-up by taking chances on players who had not yet established themselves among the elite.
Manager Brendan Rodgers, justifiably lauded for his progressive and flexible tactics last season, has been unable to find a solution to the team’s defensive struggles, while he is now struggling to inspire any rhythm going forward. On Wednesday, Liverpool’s season suffered a new low when their return to the Champions League after a five-year absence was ended at the first hurdle having failed to beat Basel assembled at a fraction of the cost, at home. It would be understandable were there fears among the Liverpool supporters about how long it will be before Anfield witnesses a Champions League night again.
Just six points away from the top four, they are far from out of contention to retain their place in the competition, but their performances, despite taking seven points from the last nine available in the Premier League, offer little encouragement that they can produce a run of positive results it will require to do so. Still, channeling the memories of that win in March would be a perfect place to start.
Team news Manchester United: Chris Smalling is expected to miss two weeks of action with a groin injury suffered against Southampton. His absence adds to United’s injury problems, with Luke Shaw and Phil Jones already out. Danny Blind also remains on the sidelines, but Rafael and Di Maria could return.
Liverpool: Sturridge remains out, although Balotelli is thought to be close to a return.
Prediction: Despite the results, neither team has exactly been in sparkling form of late. The difference right now is that Van Gaal appears to have a squad buying into his ideas and showing a resilient, winning mentality. Liverpool, on the other hand, are hesitant at the back and devoid of inspiration up front. Rodgers has attempted to go back to basics in recent weeks by fielding two holding midfielders, but, while that has solidified the team to some degree, it has further detracted from the attacking thrust that made Liverpool the team they were last season. That is unlikely to change as long as Rickie Lambert, a useful plan B, remains Plan A up front. Liverpool’s failings could allow a still suspect, although improving, United defense to escape unscathed. Meanwhile, Van Gaal’s men could have enough in attack to expose Liverpool’s flaws and get a win in a game that is likely to be higher on tension than thrills.
Manchester United 1-0 Liverpool