The biggest game on the Premier League calendar has rarely mattered this much. When Manchester United arrive at Anfield on Sunday, the result may dictate the short and long-term futures of England’s most successful clubs, writes Thomas Stelzer.
With 38 league titles and eight European Cups between them they are veritable royalty, whose great reigns of success have neatly dovetailed in the tapestry of the English game.
Yet, for perhaps the first time, neither of their eyes are set on the greatest prizes but at a chance to secure a richer future. A Champions League position beckons for the winner and with it, the possibility to build a new dynasty. It is arguably the most important meeting between the sides since Liverpool’s shock 4-1 win at Old Trafford in 2009 flung them into a two-horse title race with the Red Devils.
For Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool, a second successive season of elite European football is invaluable to his young, talented squad. After a heartbreaking stumble in last season’s title race and a disastrous start to the current one, the club has pulled itself up by the bootstraps to become the league’s most imperious force.
The club’s sensational new year form perhaps even outshines their buccaneering end to last season, due to its defensive solidity and the absence of a certain Uruguayan. A win will catapult Liverpool above their great rivals into the Top 4 and the European adventures it promises.
For Louis van Gaal, it is vital that the club can offer Champions League to any potential superstars they want to attract. If they fail to finish in the Top 4 for the second season in a row, questions will be asked of Van Gaal’s rigid style and a similar level of performance to that which effectively saw his predecessor fired.
Yet, if he can secure favourable results against United’s rivals in the coming weeks, Van Gaal’s position will become markedly more tenable. His managerial pedigree (and the club’s financial might) serves as a big drawcard and, if coupled with European football, will be an extremely attractive proposition to any player looking for long-term success.
Their last meeting saw the Red Devils cruise to a convincing, if fortunate, 3-0 win, securing their top of the table aspirations and condemning Liverpool to an ignoble end of year fate. David de Gea’s masterful display, as well as the team’s clinical finishing, were too much for the wasteful, error-prone visitors.
Ironically, the game also marked the start of Liverpool’s rejuvenation and in the following months the Reds have zeroed in on their rivals, chasing them down like a pack of hunting dogs. It has set up what is one of the greatest Top 4 chases in living memory and will add a certain edge to what is already England’s most fiery top-flight derby.
Fresh off the back of a 3-0 demolition of Tottenham, Van Gaal faces a selection dilemma with Angel di Maria’s return from suspension. The Argentinian has hardly justified his huge summer price-tag save for some early-season spark and Juan Mata’s performance against Spurs certainly gives Van Gaal pause for thought.
Rodgers faces a similar selection headache with captain Steven Gerrard available after returning from injury in a 1-0 victory at Swansea. Whether the manager will be willing to risk the team’s current stability to give Gerrard what would be his last start against United remains to be seen. Elsewhere, Daniel Sturridge’s patchy form since returning from long-term injury may see Raheem Sterling lead the line, though Sturridge’s recent attacking contributions have played their part in Liverpool’s terrific run of form, providing the flick around the corner that led to Jordan Henderson’s fortunate winner at Swansea earlier this week.
The key to the game though may lie with two unsung heroes in Joe Allen and Michael Carrick, both of whom can provide a decisive, controlling influence. In a match that guarantees to be fiery and fast-paced, either could be the difference.