There are some who would like to see tackling outlawed in football. There are others who want to see the crowd sitting quietly while the ninety minutes passes them by, expecting fans to show support their team without permitting any show of passion. And there are others who don’t understand why bitter footballing rivals share such an animosity for one another. In a week when football has been trying to recover from the shock of the Hillsborough review panel’s findings, the well-meaning masses have sought to play down Sunday’s encounter between the two most successful clubs in England.
Despite all of their well intentioned efforts, one thing remains certain. Sunday’s lunchtime clash between United and Liverpool will be just as thunderous on the pitch as any other. Off the pitch we are all hoping that there is no repeat of the sick chanting that was present at Old Trafford last week, and that the Liverpool fans return the favour by refraining from their usual anti Man United songs. On the footballing front though, none of us wants this respect to take the fight out of the game, the sting out of the tackles, or the venom out of the rivalry. To lose any of that would be to lose the meaning of this encounter.
In the past three ties between these sides there have been three different Liverpool managers. In fact, Brendan Rodgers will be the seventh Liverpool manager to go up against Ferguson since he took over at Old Trafford. If Rodgers stays at Liverpool for more than two seasons, and the signs are that he is there for the longer term, he may just become the only one to have seen off Ferguson. If Rodgers sees him off on Sunday, and Liverpool secure the points, the Irishman will feel even more like one of the family at Anfield. With Liverpool still looking for their first Premier League win of this season, it will be interesting to see how Brendan measures up the man who claimed to have ‘knocked Liverpool off their perch.’ Rodgers approach will be key.
Whilst the players are the ones who win or lose games at this level, football teams are a reflection of the personality of their manager. The stance adopted before the game by Rodgers will set the tempo for how Liverpool approach this match, just as it has done with previous Liverpool managers. Rafa Benitez had a knack of getting under Ferguson’s skin, up until the famous ‘Rafa rant’, after which it was all downhill for Benitez at Liverpool, with Ferguson going on to win more titles. Kenny Dalglish knew how to annoy him too, famously telling the reporter interviewing Ferguson to talk to his 3 year old daughter as ‘he would get more sense out of her.’ Rodgers needs to find a way to rile the United manager, to throw him off guard and to upset him. Ferguson has an infamous temper and when he gives into it is the time when he and his team are at their most vulnerable. This is what Rodgers and Liverpool must exploit, and it is when Ferguson is riled that they must strike.
Far too many managers in English football pay deference to Ferguson and their team are almost beaten before the match even kicks off. Rodgers is unlikely to befall this fate and, while there must always be respect, the Liverpool manager must send his team out as favourites for this match – Liverpool are at home and Liverpool should be winning their home games, regardless of how good the opposition think they are. Rodgers must show no signs of weakness, demonstrate no fear and act as if under no pressure. The victor, as is usually the case in these powder keg encounters, will be the team that has a tactical plan and sticks to it.
Despite what he might say, Ferguson hates coming to Anfield, he does not like the occasion and has been rattled in the past by the passion generated from Liverpool fans. How Rodgers sends his side out will go some way to determining how passionately the fans will respond on Sunday. In Raheem Sterling, Liverpool has exactly the kind of player they need for this occasion. Sterling is too young to play with fear, he is always willing to go for the difficult trick, always wanting to try and pull off something extravagant and he is exactly the kind of player who can get the home crowd excited and put United under pressure.
United will look to press Liverpool and attack, they know no other way to play. Liverpool on the other hand must look to slow the game down, keep hold of the ball and choose their incisive moments carefully. Get this right and there could be goals for Liverpool on Sunday against a United defence that has suffered from injuries, a defence that is looking a little long in the tooth and once that has never enjoyed playing against El Pistolero, Luis Suarez.
Liverpool must play with confidence and assurance. Whatever happens they must not doubt their game plan. The time for raising doubts is on the training ground, not in the heat of battle against your biggest rival. Rodgers must drum this into his players and he must also ensure they stay calm. If Liverpool can keep hold of the ball and prevent United from getting any kind of rhythm into their game then it could be a very comfortable afternoon for the home side. This approach will frustrate the visitors and they will try to draw Liverpool out, Raheem Sterling will be kicked up and down the wing (and the United players will likely be instructed to adopt this approach), but Liverpool must see this as a compliment. Frustrate United and Liverpool will be on the way to three points. React to their frustration and it will be a busy afternoon for the referee, and probably Pepe Reina too.
Rodgers’ aim must be for Ferguson to be complaining on Sunday night. To be truly adopted by the Liverpool faithful, he must embrace the animosity Liverpool has towards the United manager. Achieve this, avoid a glass of wine with Ferguson on Sunday night, and Liverpool will have a much needed Premier League win to build on.