LONDON — If Liverpool played Manchester United each week, it would probably be the Premier League champion.

No matter how poor its form may be — and it hasn’t been particularly good over the past couple of years — Liverpool finds an extra gear against its great rivals.

The under-achieving Merseysiders have won three of the last four clashes and Saturday’s summit at Old Trafford will no doubt again see the visitors raise their game.

United needs to improve, too, after throwing away four points by conceding late goals at Fulham and Everton, while the midweek goal-less and soul-less Champions League draw against Rangers was not so much a Battle of Britain as handbags at 10 paces.

Sir Alex Ferguson made 10 changes to the side that drew with Everton, a selection that suggested he already had one eye on Liverpool and to many showed disrespect to Rangers and the United supporters who had paid to see what they assumed would be the first team.

The gamble misfired as Rangers frustrated United as soon as it parked the bus and Wayne Rooney’s troubles continued — he has not scored from open play since March and fitness (or rather a lack of it) can no longer be blamed.

Ferguson kept Rooney out of the game at Everton last Saturday to spare him the inevitable chanting about his personal life — chants that will be waiting for him at every away match and more immediately from the traveling Liverpool supporters on Saturday.

The manager’s protection of Rooney was unusual because Ferguson has rarely allowed his team selections to be influence by external factors — Paul Ince (at West Ham) and David Beckham (various) have played amid personal hostility and insults.

Rooney has shown throughout his career that he is not the type to be intimidated by any situation, in fact quite the opposite, so Ferguson’s suggestion that the striker needed to be sheltered from the Goodison Park bile didn’t ring true.

Fernando Torres, too, is a shadow of the striker he was a year ago. He had an operation last spring and at the World Cup it was obvious he was struggling.

Manager Roy Hodgson said the Spain international is fit and dismissed the theory that Torres is frustrated that Liverpool did not invest more during the close season.

Torres is, according to Hodgson, “in good condition mentally.”

But like Rooney, Torres’ body language suggests that something, somewhere is wrong and it is the first time two of the world’s leading marksmen have found themselves the subject of such negative discussion.

Hodgson also admitted he cannot say when Liverpool will be at its optimum.

“We’ll get better but I’m not prepared to set a time scale. We need to be more creative, we need to be better defensively, we need to be better at set plays. We need to be better at all the things we work at. We do as much as we can in training but it is still a newish team and it will take some time before we can sit back and say we are firing on all cylinders.”

A realistic appraisal but not exactly words to inspire Liverpool fans with confidence.

* * * * *

ARSENE WENGER has a reputation for bringing little known foreign players to Arsenal and making them stars.

In Jack Wilshere, 18, Arsenal has an English midfielder who has all the attributes to stand alongside Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and others. Yes, he’s that good.

Two-goal Fabregas was outstanding in the 6-0 thrashing of Braga, but the contribution of Wilshere wasn’t far behind. Loaned to Bolton last season to gain experience, Wilshere has been a regular for the Gunners in the opening matches, and his cheeky back-heel to Maroune Chamakh for the third goal was a moment of genius in a display that belied his tender years.

Wilshere also has a physical presence Arsenal has lacked since the departure of Vieira and Gilberto Silva. Playing alongside Fabregas can only benefit Wilshere, and Wenger faces a tricky selection problem when Abou Diaby is fit again in a couple of weeks.

Last month, Wilshere was arrested and bailed after a brawl outside a night club in the early hours in central London. Wenger maintains the player was acting as a peacemaker but admitted that “ideally, footballers should be at home in bed at 3 a.m.”

Aware of the temptations that face young, rich footballers Wenger said: “None of us were angels when we were 20 . . . we all made mistakes.

“But you don’t make a career at the top level if you don’t know how to behave — it’s impossible.”

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.

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