Friday, October 23, 2009

Anfield's Day of Destiny

Distractions and sideshows are never required when Liverpool and Manchester United meet and the current criticism, much justified but some downright hysterical, surrounding Rafael Benitez makes them even less important this Sunday.

Benitez's circumstances are clear enough. He needs to end Liverpool's worst run since 1987 swiftly, and while a meeting with Manchester United provides danger it also provides opportunity and the best possible chance to blow away the clouds of crisis.

And yet, in among the politics and behind-the-scenes pantomime that has replaced what used to be called "The Liverpool Way", it should not be ignored that the champions have not always been convincing themselves this season.

It does not do to question the team that sits on top of the Premier League once more, and Ferguson's faith in Manchester United's growing maturity and his strength of squad is backed up by how they have held firm as Liverpool and Chelsea have slipped recently.

But even seasoned and partisan Old Trafford observers would have to agree there has been an uncharacteristic vulnerability in defence, a fault that can be attributed to the uncertain goalkeeping of Ben Foster and the lack of match fitness and sharpness of Rio Ferdinand.

United needed to call on their time-honoured knack of escapology to fashion a draw from an awful display against Sunderland and it was sobering to witness the panic stations as they held on for victory against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford last Saturday.

The Champions League win against CSKA Moscow in Russia, sealed by the rapidly improving Antonio Valencia, had a reassuring "job done" air from a reshaped team and will have provided huge satisfaction for Ferguson.

Sunday provides a pivotal moment, even though we are talking about a season in its infancy and the glint in Ferguson's eye as he pondered this trip to enemy territory proved the point.

If United can go to Liverpool and win, revenge for two defeats last season will be a small matter when placed against the wider context. Ferguson is unlikely to have forgotten the way Liverpool - and in particular Fernando Torres - made short work of a defence that had made Premier League history in a 4-1 thrashing at Old Trafford, but a win at Anfield would soothe those painful memories.

Victory would be an emphatic assertion of authority by United. It would put them 10 points of clear of Liverpool and make pre-season predictions of a return of the title to Anfield (who was it who made those bold claims?) an even more distant prospect.

Ferguson will give Rooney every chance of recovering from a calf injury because he will be the main thrust of their game plan against an uncertain Liverpool defence. Darren Fletcher falls into the same category because he is implictly trusted to exert influence amid the midfield mayhem of such encounters.

If Rooney comes up short, what price the intriguing inclusion of Michael Owen in Manchester United's line-up against Liverpool at Anfield? The once unthinkable prospect.

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