LONDON – It is the bitterest rivalry in the Premier League on and off the pitch. Liverpool vs. Manchester United is not just about football, it is a battle between two cities 50 km apart who, historically, have competed for the bragging rights in northwest England.
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish said Saturday’s fixture is “just another game” but he knows it is more than that. Taking three points off the Mancs is not like beating Stoke or Bolton. For many Liverpool supporters, beating United is higher on their wish list than defeating neighbor Everton.
For the first time ever, United travels to Anfield with more English titles (19) than Liverpool (18). Losing its top-dog tag hurts Liverpool, which would love to inflict a little piece of ignominious history on United.
The English champions have lost on their last three visits to Anfield but have never lost four away games in a row against any opponent in Premier League history.
Referee Phil Dowd will be delighted not to add to the total of five red cards in the last seven league meetings at Anfield between the clubs, but the odds are against it. This matchup is always light blue touchpaper and retire football.
Steven Gerrard is set to return to the Liverpool starting lineup following six months on the sidelines because of a groin injury. His presence, strength, energy and desire should improve Liverpool in the key central midfield area where Darren Fletcher is establishing himself as United’s big game player.
United has lost on each of the last four occasions Fletcher has been missing from the starting XI against its old rival, and his head-to-head with Gerrard could hold the key to the outcome.
United has not been convincing recently and has lost six of its last seven visits to its so-called Big Four rivals. Yet showing the grit of champions, the Reds remain unbeaten in 12 games this season, conceding only two away league goals.
Liverpool’s worry must be that after being in the news for all the wrong reasons over the past eight days, Wayne Rooney will score a stunning winner.
THREE GAMES for Wayne Rooney — the same ban as the Football Association would have handed the England striker had he been sent off domestically.
UEFA decided that twice kicking Montenegro’s Miodrag Dzudovic deserved a three-match suspension — on what basis can the F.A. appeal?
What credibility is there in saying the mandatory ban they give a player for serious foul play is too harsh at international level?
This is the same F.A. which handed the Manchester United striker a two-match suspension for swearing at a television camera last April, which is surely not as bad as kicking an opponent.
The F.A. apparently pointed out in Rooney’s defense that he left the field of play immediately.
So not throwing a tantrum deserves some sort of reward, then.
There is one school of thought that says as there are fewer international games than domestic matches, suspensions should be less severe. Yet kicking an opponent once, let alone twice deserves more than the one game the F.A. was hoping for, though an appeal may see the suspension reduced to two matches.
Rooney has yet to make a public apology for his unprofessional act that saw his team reduced to 10 men as Montenegro came back to draw 2-2.
He will now miss England’s three group games at the Euro 2012 finals which could be all they will play in Poland or Ukraine.
IF GIOVANNI TRAPATTONI had fixed the Euro 2012 playoffs draw he would have paired the Republic of Ireland with Estonia, the second leg played in Dublin?
Ireland has enjoyed good fortune during the qualification program and its luck shows no sign of slowing down. At this rate, it could even win it.
In Macedonia last June, Robbie Keane scored twice, the first goal taking a significant deflection off Nikolce Noveski, the second coming after a suicidal back-pass by Martin Bogantinov. The home side even missed a penalty.
Russians are still wondering how Ireland came away from Moscow with a 0-0 draw last month. Russia had 18 goal attempts to Ireland’s two, at times the visitors struggled to get out of their penalty area, but somehow survived.
Last Tuesday, Armenia goalkeeper Roman Berezovski was sent off for a handball when the ball hit his chest and then Valeri Aleksanyan scored an inexplicable own-goal.
Two years ago, Ireland was robbed of a chance to go to the 2010 World Cup by Thierry Henry’s handball, but since then the luck of the Irish has been gathering momentum.
The sum total of Ireland is far greater than the individual parts, yet Trapattoni must be the least popular successful manager in Europe. Ireland’s dour, defensive, pragmatic style can be as exciting as watching traffic lights, but the Italian will claim if it reaches its first finals in 10 years the end justifies the means.
SYMPATHY is in short supply for Carlos Tevez, who returned to training with Manchester City on Thursday after his two-week suspension. He trained alone with a club physio after the rest of the squad had left, an outcast who, if manager Roberto Mancini has his way, will never play for City again.
The Argentina international, it is claimed, refused to come on as a substitute against Bayern Munich last month. Tevez’s advisers are adamant it was all a misunderstanding, citing the striker’s lack of English (after five years in England), saying he “only” refused to warm up.
It is very rare than an outfield player comes on as a substitute without warming up, and City believes it has sufficient evidence to prove its case as it formally disciplines him for “breaches of contract.”
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.