No other fixture fills me with as much dread as this one. I don’t fear it but, much like a tarantula, I’m not inviting it into my house to hang out and I don’t want to see it that often either. Part of the problem is that United have been so dominant for the last twenty years, we just haven’t been a match for them enough times on the field, and United under Ferguson were very good at demonstrating their authority on the field.
Of course this isn’t Ferguson’s United but it’s still Manchester United at Old Trafford, and that carries with it a certain level of danger. I’m not saying we can’t go there and win, but if you’re a bad pessimist like me, here are a few reasons why we might not. Also whilst I was writing this, two black cats walked past my window. Is that a good or bad omen?
1. Our record at Old Trafford
In short it’s terrible. Going back to the game that we won in 2004 that no one remembers, we’ve since banked a record of losing 10 out of our last 11 there in all competitions. We all remember the 4-1 win but that’s an aberration, usually we meekly surrender with maybe a sending off thrown in for good measure. It’s probably no shock to let you all know that Howard Webb has been in charge in 4 out of the last 6 there, so all those jokes about playing 12 men might not be wide of the mark.
Sunday’s ref is the man who was in charge of us earlier in the season in the League Cup, where they beat us with a line up including Old Man Giggs, Buttner, Nani, the misfiring Kagawa and Hernandez. So even when the devil’s favourite ref isn’t in charge, we’re still coming up empty. The Old Trafford record is (if it already isn’t) on the verge of becoming a hoodoo of ‘Everton at Anfield’ proportions.
2. Chelsea and City will already have played
We’re in the title race until we’re out of it and at the moment we’re very much in it. That means that every game takes place under a fair amount of pressure. That pressure gets worse when you know you HAVE to win because everyone else has. Now obviously you have to win every game to win the title but there’s a marked difference between knowing you need to win before everyone else has played and knowing you have to win because the gap that was miniscule is beginning to look like a chasm.
The two teams we're competing with have easy fixtures in comparison to us; away at Hull for City and away at Villa for Chelsea. Hull might prove tricky for a City side that don’t like travelling (and let’s not forget Hull beat us well earlier this season) but even City and their mediocre away record should see them off. Elsewhere you can’t rely on Villa for anything; Dave’s covered that topic extensively over the years so let’s not pretend that this will be anything other than a Chelsea win.
Go to Old Trafford, where we’re rubbish, under pressure to win and keep our title hopes alive, against a side who would love nothing more than to ruin it. Yeah, that sounds like it’ll go well.
3. Rooney and Van Persie can’t continue to be this bad
I mean they can’t can they? Van Persie is lucky to even be available for this game after he bombed round the Hawthorns looking to get himself sent off. In the end he got off the pitch because Moyes realised it was that or a sending off. Whether Van Persie has seen his arse because Rooney got the fat contract (no pun intended) and adulation, despite trying to make a quick getaway, remains to be seen.
There’s definitely something off between them though but Van Persie has an incredible knack of scoring against us and Rooney’s record against us is poor at Anfield but he puts in decent performances at home. There’s been squabbling about positions on the field, ‘zones’, no passes to one another since Giggs was young enough to pay for the bus and awful discipline; so that’ll continue against us, right? There’s no chance of them rallying against us because under-performing strikers never score agains… oh.
4. Mata hasn’t put in one ‘defining’ performance yet
I’ll be honest, I like Juan Mata. He was definitely the most ‘likeable’ player for Chelsea (if such a rare beast actually exists) and I think he’s a fabulous footballer. I was really disappointed to see him go to United in January because i) I don’t want them signing any good players and ii) it seemed like such a signing could galvanize United’s season.
His signing hasn’t really had that desired effect, mainly because his manager has decided to take one of the best number tens in the world and put him out the wing, which is fine and dandy because it continues United and England’s strange indulgence of Rooney in that role. Mata has had 6 games and 3 assists for United (according to my rudimentary stat scouting, don’t judge me) but he’s yet to score, so there’s red flag number one.
He’s also yet to put in a really defining performance yet. Sure the press have made out he’s gangbusters like they tried with that Sanogo at Arsenal but Mata hasn’t put in performances up to the level of Chelsea last year, that’s red flag number two. Much like the Rooney and Van Persie conundrum, he’s due a stand out performance and what better time to do it than against hated rivals who are in a title race, thus endearing him to his new club?
5. Defensive lapses from us and our set piece weaknesses
Basically you just can’t trust us. No matter who is back there, no matter who we’re playing and no matter what sort of formation we’re in, no other side has such a propensity for gunshot wounds to the foot. Our last game against Southampton (which seems like months ago) saw us preside over a clean sheet, Mignolet looking more confident and making good saves, and more assuredness than we’ve seen in recent weeks. Which makes the chance of a screw-up even more likely on Sunday because that’s the absurdity of Liverpool’s defence this season; just when you think they’re on a roll, they fall over, land in dog poo, break their nose and lose their keys.
United love a good cross more than the Romans and whilst this side has become rather one-dimensional when it comes to crosses, nothing fills me with more worry than seeing if Mignolet will bring his map off his line with him, or whether we’ll get undone by some new calamity. I’d bet on the forwards all day long, I wouldn’t even bet Monopoly money on the defence.
Ok, some compelling arguments there and to be honest I don’t disagree with any of those points, they’ve all crossed my mind too and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared of this fixture (a bit like Julian saying he doesn’t fear tarantulas!).
The set piece issue in particular fills me with worry; over the years whilst all the focus has always been on Cantona, Sheringham, Cole, Yorke, Ronaldo, Rooney, Van Persie etc we usually find a way to allow some chump no-one had even thought about to pop up and score off a set-piece. Pallister, Sylvestre, O’Shea, Evra etc
However, as concerned as I am with all of the above, if I were a United fan I’d be a hell of a lot more concerned about what Liverpool can do, and here’s why:
We score so many goals that we’re a threat against anybody. We’re the leading scorers in the league, and United’s home record this season is poor. Swansea, Spurs, West Brom, Newcastle, Everton and others have won at Old Trafford, so a side with Suarez, Sturridge & Sterling in it should run wild in those open spaces that will be left on the counter attack.
2. We’re due one
As Julian pointed out, our record there is horrific. It feels like we nearly always show up looking like we have some kind of inferiority complex and don’t start playing until we’re 2-0 down. We usually finish strong but by then it’s too late.
Our losing run there has to end some time though and this season we’ve done well when it comes to beating hoodoos. Whenever we’re facing a side who haven’t had a result against us in years I always worry (Everton at Anfield being a good example), so in this case I’m taking the reverse stance. We’ve won only once at Old Trafford since Houllier and Murphy left. That’s woeful, and it’s time we grew a pair and took the game to them from the opening kick off. Let’s blitz them from the off and they won't know what's hit them.
3. David Moyes
No further explanation necessary.
4. We’re better than them
For the first time in many a year, we go into this game knowing that we are actually a better side than United. I don't even remember when was the last time we could genuinely say that without there being any room for debate. We can now, we're obviously better than them. The league table shows it clearly and the respective performances of both teams throughout the season show it too.
We know we’re better than them and - just as significantly - they know it too. If we get our noses in front we could steamroller them as the crowd could so easily turn on them and they are a side that is not high on confidence right now. Put them on the back foot, get an early goal and then pick them off whilst their fans lose the plot.
5. Brendan Rodgers
The boss has had two weeks to prepare for this, which means he’ll have been working on a plan to allow us to best utilise the front two and hopefully isolate them against the United centre backs as much as possible.
Perhaps he’ll have a special plan for Sterling too? Against Everton Rodgers identified a weak area between the left back and centre half and Sterling exploited it brilliantly. Against Arsenal it was same but on the opposite flank, and the Southampton game saw him excel in a number ten role.
We’ve got better players than United, and we’ve now got a better manager. It’s just about getting it right on the day, if we do that, we should win.