LONDON – This is a game Louis van Gaal dare not lose. English football’s clasico between Manchester United and Liverpool today is, like Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, not a derby, but it represents the fiercest and most hostile rivalry in English football.
The jury has returned on van Gaal a month into his second season though a majority verdict could not be reached. The charge was “suspending £250 million over the past year, which makes United the third-most expensive squad in world football, and still having a side with glaring deficiencies.”
The retrial starts at Old Trafford Saturday and anything other than a victory against a depleted Liverpool — playmaker Philippe Coutinho is suspended and striker Christian Benteke is an injury doubt — will heap more pressure on the Dutchman. There is also the future of David de Gea to sort out after his protracted and farcical non-transfer to Real Madrid, though the Spain international will be needed against Liverpool and is likely to make a belated start to his United season.
It is what van Gaal has achieved in the past that keeps him onside — just — with the Old Trafford faithful.
You could count on one hand and even have fingers to spare the number of times United has played like United is expected to play under van Gaal. Even the players have, bravely it must be said, told the manager they are unhappy about playing with the handbrake on.
True, he has made them more organized defensively and Matteo Darmain has been a fine addition at right-back. Yet a commanding center-back to play alongside Chris Smalling is needed, with more genuine pace in midfield and help for Wayne Rooney up front are urgent requirements. When the transfer window closed and Anthony Martial, the 19-year old Monaco forward who cost £36 million, was the only new late recruit there was a collective scratching of heads among United supporters.
United scored only 62 Premier League goals last season, its second-lowest total for 23 years. Rooney has not scored in 10 league matches so the pressure, unreasonable as it may be, is on Memphis Depay and Martial, the world’s most expensive teenager, to start finding the back of the net quickly and regularly. The use of Marouane Fellaini as an emergency striker at Swansea was not what United fans want to see.
The youngsters will never have experienced the atmosphere of a matchup Sir Alex Ferguson described as “always the game of the season . . . the intensity, the rivalry, the great footballers . . . it remains the game of the season.”
When Ferguson joined United, it had won seven league titles at that time and had not won it in nearly 20 years. His ambition was to “knock Liverpool off their f****** perch” which he did with some style, United winning 13 league titles to overtake Liverpool’s record of 18.
The rivalry dates back to the Industrial Revolution when there was severe competition between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester for dominance in trade. Liverpool had the more strategically located port and Manchester was not able to compete with the city 48 km away.
So in 1894 it built the Manchester Ship Canal, which allowed ships to bypass Liverpool and transport goods directly to Manchester. This was a major blow to Liverpool trade and made Manchester the main hub of shipping activities.
Now, 121 years later, the bitterness which manifests itself in football has turned to hatred in some cases, the rivalry reaching unacceptable levels with both sets of fans singing sick songs about tragedies that have affected the clubs.
Steven Gerrard never exchanged jerseys with United players as he did not want one in his house. The last player to transfer directly between the two clubs was Phil Chisnall in 1964, more than half a century ago.
At the 1996 F.A. Cup Final, an unidentified Liverpool fan spat at Eric Cantona and threw a punch at Ferguson as a victorious Manchester United walked up the Wembley steps to collect the trophy from the Royal Box. The 2006 F.A. Cup match at Anfield featured foreign objects thrown at United fans by Liverpool supporters, including human excrement.
Carrying his 6-week-old daughter Lauren in his arms, Kenny Dalglish once suggested to a radio interviewer that might get more sense interviewing the baby than Ferguson. When the Manchester Evening News reported Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League final shootout win over AC Milan in Istanbul with the headline “Beyond Belief” the paper was inundated with complaints from readers.
The 3,000 Liverpool fans making the trip have been warned that drinking alcohol on the streets in Manchester city center won’t be tolerated. There are also no pubs for away fans close to Old Trafford.
Liverpool supporters will be able to get a drink in the ground — a maximum of two alcoholic drinks per visit to the bar per person, the same policy for home fans.
It is to this backdrop that the Premier League resumes at Old Trafford after the international break. If there is a loser and Manchester City beats Crystal Palace, either United or Liverpool will be eight points behind the leaders, which even at this stage of the season is a huge gap.
Such is the intensity and expectation of United fans that the mass jury’s verdict on van Gaal will be hugely influenced by the outcome of this match. Similarly, if Brendan Rodgers does not deliver Champions League football for Liverpool as a minimum this season he will be facing the sack.
This is a game where far more than three points are at stake.
Rooney talk: So Wayne Rooney did it, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals for England with his penalty during the 2-0 Euro 2016 win over Switzerland. Cue pointless comparisons between the two players.
Comparing those who played in the Sixties and Seventies to today’s superstars is futile and meaningless. They were totally different eras — Charlton played when defenses and fitness levels were in their infancy and on pitches that often resembled ploughed fields as opposed to the bowling green surfaces Rooney enjoys.
Those who say Rooney has scored a lot of goals against second-rate opposition forget Charlton feasted on the United States before soccer had been professionally introduced across the pond and had the advantage of the annual Home Internationals against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who were too often there for the taking.
Rooney may never achieve the status Charlton did, but to break Sir Bobby’s record he deserves the recognition and praise some seem reluctant to acknowledge.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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