There are a few match-ups as a sports fan that always grab my attention. I haven’t been as able to keep up with the Dodgers over the last few years - thanks at least in part to the terrible television rights deal that the team signed which has made it impossible for what feels like half of Los Angeles residents unable to watch the local team - but I still perk up when I see that notification on Twitter that indicates they’re up against the San Francisco Giants. It’s been nearly two decades since this rivalry featured anything resembling evenly matched teams at their peak, but the blood still rushes when I see the Lakers are lined up opposite the Sacramento Kings.
Rivalry has a special place in the life of a sports fan. And this weekend, one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports logs one more entry into its long and electric history. The two most decorated clubs in the English game, Liverpool FC and Manchester United, will face off.
The rivalry itself still certainly engenders a lot of enmity on either side. But the circumstances around the match up have also lead to the shine of a tilt like this to lose a bit of its luster. Liverpool are top of the table and are in with a shout for not only being the best team in England, but the best in all of Europe. Manchester United are decidedly not that.
And it’s not like it’s really been very close in the time that I’ve been a fan either - Liverpool were a a club in crisis when I came onboard as a fan and have spent the better part of the past 9 years getting back to where they are now. United, meanwhile, have been working in the opposite trajectory, seeing out the twilight of their most dominant era finally close with the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
It is a match up that, at present, should not engender much passion. For Liverpool, this is a date on the calendar against a mid table side that’s struggling through a season in which it’s dramatically apparent that, despite their deep coffers, United’s luck in the transfer window and in personnel assessment have both finally stopped unearthing gold. Instead, United own a club that’s heavy on wages but poor on quality, and the state of their results are a testament to that.
But even with a team on its own down swing and with Liverpool’s fortunes riding rather high given the perfect start to this campaign, no one involved in this tilt is likely to take it easy. Because this is an historic rivalry, one that transcends how well the clubs are doing. And I sense that even with the potential of this being a lopsided match, everyone involved is going to go into this match as though this were a title-deciding match.
The phrase “everything to play for” is a bit of a cliche in sports but this is one of those scenarios where you can’t help but feel that it is apt. Sure, United and Liverpool aren’t in a fight for the title - United’s neighbors, Manchester City, hold that card - but there’s still everything to play for. In Liverpool’s case, we know that every point matters in the chase for the Premier League crown. And dropping points will be made all the more sour knowing it came at the hands of an ailing United.
For the Red Devils, there’s motivation to play spoiler and, of course, perhaps use a scalp of their biggest rival and the current leaders in the Premier League to reset their season. It would be the precise tonic that should certainly light a fire under of Paul Pogba and company.
The biggest motivator of all, though, is pride. And given the contentious nature of this fixture; even in circumstances where neither team had much to play for on paper, the players always stepped onto the pitch amped all the way up to 11.
Which is really the point: that context of this match might give it nuance and texture for the purpose of scribes like me who are aching for narrative. But when the players enter that tunnel and the roar of the crowd reaches its apex, I guarantee none of that will matter. Because it’s still Liverpool versus Manchester United. Footballing giants facing off for bragging rights. Oldest story ever told. One for which we eagerly await each new telling.