Victory at Old Trafford – what would it mean?

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by @CharlieMalam

Liverpool vs Manchester United is unequivocally the biggest footballing rivalry in the Premier League. There’s no doubt about it.

The two are the most successful English sides on the domestic and European stages, and the mix of poison and passion on the field has led to it becoming one of the biggest games in world football.

In recent meetings, Liverpool’s priority has been to disrupt Man United’s dominance. On most occasions, the Reds have made the trip to their rivals vastly behind in the table. The last time they met at Old Trafford, Liverpool sat 21 points and 7 places behind United who were enjoying a 7 point lead at the top of the table. Too many times, a Liverpool victory against the Red Devil’s at this stage of the season would rarely dismantle them.

There’s something slightly different in the build-up to this particular contest though. For once it is Liverpool, instead of United, who could go 14 points ahead of their arch-rivals. For the first time since 2001/02 it seems that the Reds will finish above them in the Premier League table and what would be better than a win on their own turf to announce the new era that a certain Northern Irishman has ushered into the club.

Brendan Rodgers’ second season in charge is going splendidly, as he and his side have attracted plaudits from neutrals worldwide for their attacking fluidity and are outsiders to win the league. Across the other side of the pond however, there is a particular dissimilitude in David Moyes’ side’s form. The despondence and despair amidst Salford this season has coincided with a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes in the Red contingent of Merseyside.

Unbeaten in the league in 2014, Liverpool go into the tie on the back of four straight wins. Having arduously conquered Stoke in the graveyard that is the Britannia Stadium and thrashing Southampton away for the first time since January 2003, Liverpool have proved they are capable of producing results as impressive on the road as they can at home.

Though they have have been accused of failing “under the pressure” (i.e. the 1-1 draw at West Brom after the 4-0 derby day victory and the 2-2 home draw vs Villa after the 5-3 win at Stoke), Rodgers’ Reds have proved their mettle recently with fortitudinous displays. The fragility of their defence combined with the adopted “we’ll score more than you” approach has risked a rise in electrocardiograms on Merseyside, but Liverpool have attained the necessary points with a style and swagger which suggests they could lift the esteemed trophy on May 11th. Despite perhaps questionable performances in the 1st 45 minutes against Fulham, Swansea and Southampton, their overwhelming forward firepower has seen them through and the team spirit amongst the camp is there for all to see.

United meanwhile, as everyone will know, have been severely lacklustre this season. The replacement of Sir Alex Ferguson, was always going to suffer some turbulence after such a huge character within the club leaving but Moyes didn’t help himself by removing Fergie’s assistant Mike Phelan, first-team coach Rene Meulensteen and goalkeeping coach Eric Steele, all of whom operated under an incredibly successful system under the previous Scot. Bringing the likes of Jimmy Lumsden, Steve Round and Chris Wood from Everton to replace them and the Red Devil’s subsequent free fall from 1st to 7th within the space of 12 months has left much criticism lying at the feet of their new manager.

Their cumbersome tactics of repetitively loading the ball into the box has been laughable at times, as they broke the record for the most crosses in a single game, with 81 crosses attempted, and a measly 18 successfully finding a United shirt. In fact the only players not to attempt a cross were Nemanja Vidic and David De Gea, which speaks volumes of David Moyes’ medieval tactics. Despite miserable results at home to West Brom, Fulham and Swansea amongst others this season, they have shown possible shoots of recovery recently, with improved performances in 2-0 and 3-0 wins over Crystal Palace and West Brom sandwiched either side of an an abysmal display at Olympiakos in Europe.

If you were to go off recent form, an in-form Liverpool should expect a win against an out-of-sorts United. However, it’s not quite that simple..

Liverpool haven’t won at Old Trafford since the infamous 4-1 thrashing, which happened exactly 5 years ago this weekend. Since that victory their record at “The Theatre of Dreams”  does not bode in the visitors’ favour, as they have lost the last seven successive games in all competitions there. In fact, the Reds have only ever won 17.65% of their games at Old Trafford in the history between the two teams. Is this the perfect weekend to put some of their demons to bed then?

The Reds make the trip across the M62 as favourites for the first time in several decades and certainly, Manchester United will be relishing the opportunity to de-rail their rival’s title charge. Alternatively, Liverpool could also close the doors on David Moyes’ side achieving anything significant in their domestic campaign as they look unlikely to attain anything higher than 5th or 6th place.

Earlier in the season, Liverpool came out 1-0 winners at home to the Mancs, securing their best start to a Premier League campaign since 1994-95. Birthday boy Daniel Sturridge was the goalscorer, with a deft headed flick in the early stages of the game and his goal scoring form has not let up since. Sturridge has since taken the league by storm, with 18 goals in 20 league appearances and despite what the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton would have you believe, he is a much-loved figure amongst the Anfield faithful.

This time around though, Liverpool will have to deal with United’s talisman Wayne Rooney, who scored both goals in their last victory over their Red counterparts just over a year ago at Old Trafford. Rooney was sorely missed in the previous encounter earlier in the campaign, as United looked devoid of creativity but the danger of him, Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj and Robin Van Persie means they are capable of punishing defences. Mata will make his first appearance in a United shirt versus Liverpool and with 3 assists against them in 6 appearances for Chelsea, Liverpool’s back will clearly have to be wary of his threat.

Whilst United’s forward line is fearsome, Liverpool boast the league’s most impressive attacking force on the road, scoring 2.21 goals per game on average and having only failed to score in one away game all season, a 2-0 loss to Arsenal. They have scored 29 goals in 9 league games and 34 in 12 games in all competitions in 2014. That’s 2.83 goals per game in all competitions so far in 2014. If Liverpool score at least 1 away at United, they will be averaging 3 goals per game in the league in this calendar year and given that Liverpool have scored 15 in their last 4, you’d be backing them to get on the scoresheet. As a matter of fact, only Arsenal (in FA Cup) and West Brom have stopped them from scoring more than one goal in a game in the new year.

Meanwhile, defensively, Brendan Rodgers will have the added boost of Mamadou Sakho and Lucas Leiva’s return to contention after they emerged from a 2-0 U21′s youth game last Friday unscathed. Lucas managed the full 90 and Sakho featured for 70 minutes as the Reds look to solidify a top-four spot and potentially push for the title.

There’s one other weapon that Liverpool have up their sleeve too, and this one’s significantly more difficult to stop. Suarez & Sturridge? Nope. The youthful exuberance of Coutinho and Sterling? Nope. Steven Gerrard? No again.

It’s actually United manager David Moyes. So far this season, United have only won once in 11 games against the top nine sides in the Premier League. Just a bad season? Well no, not really. In the 27 games Moyes has managed a side against Liverpool, he has lost 14 and won just 5. His Everton and United sides have also scored just 20 goals in comparison to Liverpool’s 35 in those 27 matches.

Nevertheless, records don’t count for much as they are easily broken. The unpredictable nature of the Premier League means that victory is far from certain. But just what would it mean if the Reds were to win there for only the third time in 10 years?

A win at Old Trafford in any other circumstances would be huge, a win in THESE circumstances would be stratospheric. Liverpool have already brushed aside close rivals with 4-0, 5-0 and 5-1 wins against their rivals Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal but a win against the Mancs is just that much sweeter. In their own back yard, a victory could ramp up confidence which already seems to be brimming full out of Melwood.

Victory ensures Liverpool’s title credentials are serious, but a loss or a draw means the club could be catastrophic. It’s a mouth-watering prospect. It’s a new challenge for the away side, how many times have the come to Old Trafford with a view to lifting the title on the final day? Even in 2009 they were by far the underdogs, and the pressure to succeed at the home of the Premier League champions isn’t something Rodgers will regularly have experienced.

That’s not all. The game also takes on an added significance, as Andrew Beasley discovered in one of his recent articles. Due to the postponement of the Sunderland game, the United fixture is Liverpool’s 29th league game of the campaign, just as it was in 2008/09. The 29th game in our last five seasons have all proved significant, whether that prove to be detrimentally or beneficially. Over the years, Liverpool have experienced differing fortunes in the 29th game and a win or a loss could dramatically affect whether the Reds are hunting the title or fighting to secure a fourth-placed spot.

The odds are firmly stacked in Liverpool’s favour, and the Reds can confirm their superiority over their adversaries for the first time in over a decade, but it’s up to themselves to step up to the plate and prove to everybody that for once their title-talk is serious.