50-50 Challenge: Manchester United vs. Liverpool
The Premier League's fiercest rivalry returns on Sunday as Manchester United take on Liverpool. While Louis van Gaal's men are on the rise following five successive league wins, Liverpool are still reeling from their Champions League exit. Who will have the upper hand at Old Trafford? Scott Patterson (United) and Steven Kelly (Liverpool) face off ahead of the big one.
So, Liverpool are there for the taking -- right?
Scott Patterson: You would think so as Liverpool's football recently has been pretty poor. United aren't playing particularly well, either, but at least they are getting results. There appears to be a switch in mentality, which has allowed United to get all three points against the likes of Arsenal and Southampton, despite being largely dominated. It's too early to claim that the "never say die" attitude of the Sir Alex Ferguson era has returned, but the team is certainly looking less fragile than it did at the beginning of the season.
Liverpool will probably raise their game at Old Trafford. It's probably not possible for them to play much worse than they did midweek in their Champions League game. They do have some quality players and the manager will be looking for a reaction, so it would be daft to rule them out from getting a result.
Steven Kelly: It would appear so. They had their once-every-five-years victory at Old Trafford last season, a run that's gone on for a long time now despite former manager Gerard Houllier's curious winning streak that bucked the trend.
Morale is down and anyone vaguely labelled "striker" appears to be struck down by a vanishing virus. Injury, fatigue, in manager's bad books -- you name it. There's always the chance of a Bernabeu-style rear-guard action to frustrate the side in form, even if United's winning streak is made more of pyrite than Real Madrid's actual gold.
Straws can always be clutched, of course, and what better way to get back in the groove than by beating the enemy in their backyard? Well, one better way would have been to defeat Basel and stay in the Champions League. If that couldn't be done, not much hope will be held out for this one, either.
Sum up how fierce this rivalry is
SP: United and Liverpool hate each other. There are plenty of examples of unruly behaviour between the fans over the years, but overall the relationship probably isn't as heated now as it once was.
Had Liverpool won the title last year, Sunday's game would likely be far more hostile, but as it is, they were trophy-less last season just like us, and their chance has come and gone. They finished in the top four but their Champions League dream ended without them even getting out of the group. Their banners of "Come back when you've won 18" feel like a lifetime ago. It's 20-18 now though, so maybe Liverpool feel the rivalry more than United do these days. Manchester United went 26 years without winning the league while they dominated English football. They're on to 24 years now, and counting.
SK: It's unrelenting. In an age when football is sponsor-friendly, child-friendly and TV-friendly -- though it's taking time to get around to wallet-friendly -- for two matches a season, the old bile and venom returns.
The strange thing is that it's there for most of United's matches, as far as I can tell, so even success for one and failure for another never dims the hatred. If anything, it seems to make it worse. Back in the 1980s, it was Liverpool sucking up trophies but still obsessing over "the others."
For a brief, albeit golden time last season, a lot of Liverpool supporters thought just as much about the hapless David Moyes as they did about their seemingly resurgent team and manager Brendan Rodgers. United fans' rather diluted interest in Europe came coincidentally flooding back when Basel left Anfield with a point.
That's not even close to being the worst of it. Everything is fair game. Personally, old age has mollified such baser instincts but an ill-chosen quip, an overreaction to a few wins or their mere proximity can still awaken the demons.
What's changed since the 3-0 at Old Trafford last season?
SP: Luis Suarez has gone. David Moyes has gone. These departures have reversed the fortunes of both clubs.
SK: Absolutely everything. There are no goals in the team, no pace and no confidence. There is no Luis Suarez, all-round mischief merchant and bête noire. There's someone on the pitch that looks like the Steven Gerrard of nine months ago, but no one's actually been able to establish his true identity.
There is no title challenge. There is no assumption of victory, though even in March some suspected United and Moyes might awake from their slumber for one self-satisfying sabotage operation.
United now have someone in charge who looks like he might know what he's doing, while Rodgers gambles, changes and clutches whatever straws he can. The certainty of last season has vanished, to be replaced by a kind of wild floundering.
A lot can change in nine months. That's what keeps supporters going. It can change again.
Where will this one be won and lost?
SP: I think this game is in United's hands. If their attacking players show up, then they will win. But if their defence is as shaky as it was against Southampton, they could be in big trouble. The answer to this question for years has probably been something related to United's midfield, but now, this position is looking fairly solid from United's perspective, and that's with Daley Blind still out injured.
These sort of games though, which mean so much to the supporters and the players who have been at the clubs for a while, can be decided by stupid sendoffs. Chris Smalling proved that already this season versus Manchester City. United have to keep all their players on the pitch and not let themselves get carried away by the atmosphere.
SK: If Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal has any sense, he will just tell his players what every other manager facing Liverpool seems to say: Keep it tight, hustle and harry the goalkeeper and back four, wait for the mistake that always happens and then pounce.
Rodgers, short of options, can finally put his dream team of no strikers into action. Raheem Sterling still causes trouble for every fullback he faces and, miracle of miracles, there were a few signs that a confident and committed -- hopefully not too committed -- Lazar Markovic can create a degree of consternation with his skill and not his magic, lethal fingertips.
And United do have problems. When the "ex-legend" Gary Neville can be so scathing after five straight wins, not everything in the garden is rosy. Limited and far-fetched as it is, this is the only thing Liverpool can latch onto on Sunday.
Which players, if any, would you take from the opposition side?
SP: Raheem Sterling is a real player. He loves running at the opposition and has such skillful feet. Players like him, who get fans on their feet whenever they touch the ball, are so exciting to watch. Maybe United should take Steven Gerrard, too, to give him a shot at winning the Premier League before he retires.
SK: Goalkeeper David De Gea, obviously. It might be flippant to suggest any major side that has someone to score goals and someone to stop them is 50 percent nearer to success, but it's true. Anyone watching Liverpool without Suarez, without Daniel Sturridge and with Simon Mignolet can testify to that.
Robin van Persie is waking up again, showing the sort of form that took United to their last title. He did to Southampton what he did to Liverpool when he last played against them for Arsenal. With that kind of opportunism in your side you're never beaten, no matter how badly you've been playing, and the other players know that and start to believe more as a result.
Liverpool were one slip away from the title last season, even with Mignolet and a shaky defence. Cliché it may be, goals win football matches and with van Persie and Wayne Rooney finding form, that changes everything, no matter what Neville says.
SP: 2-1 to United. It could go either way but I'm hoping United boss Louis van Gaal has been saving himself for this one and understands just how much a win would mean to the fans.
SK: 2-0 for the home side. Because goals are scarce and clean sheets are almost impossible, even the modern game's predilection for the unexpected will be sorely tested by the concept of a Liverpool win. Damage limitation seems most likely.