Liverpool visit Old Trafford as winners of three straight between the sides.
Even in a season in which Liverpool have stumbled so badly, that phrase brings some joy. Winners at Anfield in October 2-0, winners at Old Trafford 4-1 a little more than a year ago, and winners at home in September of 2008 by a 2-1 margin. In theory this gives Liverpool some sort of psychological edge, especially considering that, minus Andrea Dossena, every goal scorer from these matches is still with Liverpool. And Wes Brown, scorer of the own goal in September 2008, is still with United.
Of course with Liverpool, theory and practice are always two completely separate things. Recently they've seemed to blend the two a bit better, but aside from a handful of important wins in league, Liverpool have been unable to duplicate their efforts against United and find themselves in a whole heap of trouble. That heap got a little thinner today with Wolves drawing Villa in a tight West Midlands derby, but it's likely going to go down to the wire in the race for the fourth spot, and Liverpool aren't necessarily the favorites.
And being a short-sighted a Liverpool supporter, it almost seems like Manchester United are on the other side of the world. Nevermind that the Reds are ahead of 15 other sides on points---from this self-contained perspective, Liverpool are slumming it while United are yet again flirting with glory.
But self-pity doesn't suit anyone at this point, even if it is what's most comfortable this season. United are capitalizing on Chelsea's struggles and sit atop the league, and although Chelsea have a game in hand, you get the feeling that United will inevitably find a way to pull it off. And they've got a striker who walks on water, a manager who at least flatters himself, and a chance to make things absolutely miserable for Liverpool.
I think we can count on one thing, though---Nemanja Vidic won't be around for the full 90. The Serbian defender has been sent off three straight times against Liverpool, and while the victim of one red card (Xabi Alonso) won't be around, he'll still have to contend with Fernando Torres. Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have done a good job on Torres in the past, but if Torres can isolate either one, it's lights out. There's obviously the matter of getting Torres free, but if it happens, we've seen that neither Vidic nor Ferdinand can handle him.
But that might not even matter, as it almost seems like of late United have only had to depend on Wayne Rooney. Obviously that's not the case, but the English striker has been on intergalactic form. He's scored a ridiculous amount of goals recently, and if he's allowed any space it's going to be a nightmare for Liverpool. And he's supported by some combination of Park Ji Sung, Antonio Valenica, Ryan Giggs, and Nani. Plenty of pace and skill there to give the Liverpool full-backs absolute fits.
And that's really where it starts for Liverpool in this one---not necessarily just the full-backs, but the backline as a unit. The anchor doesn't change---Pepe Reina's been in top form nearly all season and is the leader in the conversation for Liverpool's player of the year. Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger have emerged as the most effective and preferred pairing in central defense, with Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua at right and left back, respectively.
But I wouldn't be surprised if there's some sort of shake-up here, and I almost hope for it. These matches are particularly tight, and with Insua's recent troubles it wouldn't be a bad time to spell him. I feel like I've been writing this more and more in recent weeks, but a run for Daniel Agger at left back would be welcomed, and it would allow for the Greek to partner with Carra in central defense. That exposes Liverpool's defense in terms of pace, but that hasn't always been the difference between these two sides. Whoever it is, there's little room for error, and judging by Rafa's game plan for these matches---defend, defend, defend, hope for a break---they'll have an integral role to play.
I don't expect much to change in front of the backline from Thursday regardless of Alberto Aquilani's fitness. The Lucas and Masch pairing will be a vital part of how Liverpool approaches this one, and Lucas even showed some competence moving forward against Lille. That was at Anfield, though, and here he'll likely be tasked with breaking up play rather than getting into the attack. It's obviously going to be Gerrard and Torres up the rest of the middle, and while we can safely say that Albert Riera doesn't figure in the mix, Rafa's actually got some sort of selection question on the wings. Ryan Babel's been effective as his run-outs increase, Dirk Kuyt is always a favorite, Maxi Rodriguez is starting to show his influence, and Yossi Benayoun is probably the most consistently creative player in the squad.
Like this same fixture last season, I think it all hinges on how the first twenty minutes or so unfold. If United get an early goal, Liverpool can't help but search for the equalizer. Rafa will want to control possession and pace, hoping to nick one on the counter and rely on the strength of Liverpool's defense. But United's shown the ability to break down even the stingiest of defenses, and that's not necessarily a phrase you would use to describe Liverpool away from Anfield this season. As last season showed us, though, on any given day, anything can happen. Let's hope that anything does happen, and that it again favors the Reds.