For only the second time since three points were first awarded for a win in 1981, Sunday meeting’s between Liverpool and Manchester United will see neither team in the top four. The other, in September 2004, was when the season was only five games old.
Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were fifth on April 14, 1981, when a Gordon McQueen goal gave eighth-placed Manchester United, under new manager Ron Atkinson, a win at Anfield in front of only 31,276 spectators. Still, Liverpool won the European Cup the following month as they dominated the 1980s before United re-emerged under Sir Alex Ferguson to dominate in the 1990s and the noughties.
As McQueen told me years later:
Liverpool were well ahead of us, the dominant side of the early 80s. Their recruitment was second to none and recruitment is by far the most important thing in football.
United’s recruitment, at senior and youth level, remains a concern. Expensive new signings have experienced mixed fortunes and the team have slipped.
Two games beyond the half-way point of the season, United are sixth in a table they led in November, nine points behind leaders Arsenal. Liverpool are three off the Red Devils after Wednesday’s last-gasp equaliser against the Gunners, excited and enthused to have Jurgen Klopp as their boss. But their form, like United’s, is inconsistent too.
Since topping the table, United have only won one of their last eight league games and the club has been enveloped in a storm about Louis van Gaal’s future. The football is considered boring by fans and the Dutchman’s stock has plummeted, though support remains strong for his team at matches. There have been a few jeers, boos and even ironic cheers at Old Trafford when the team dared take a shot against Sheffield United last Saturday in a laboured FA Cup win, but fans have been remarkably tolerant given the poor football.
In supporter polls, the vast majority wouldn’t be sad to see the Dutch boss go. There’s a limited appetite for his assistant Ryan Giggs taking over either, with a mood of pessimism sweeping fans after the team stopped scoring and stopped winning.
Fans at Old Trafford’s Scoreboard End have not seen a single goal from their side at this end in four months, while there hasn’t been a United goal in the first half for the last 10 games at Old Trafford. It’s nowhere near good enough.
Tuesday’s thrilling 3-3 draw at Newcastle went against the grain of what United have become. The tactics were more adventurous but while Rooney’s brace in the North East was his fourth goal in three games equalling Thierry Henry’s 175 goals for one team in the Premier League.
And while he’s the club’s joint equal top-scorer with Anthony Martial in the league, both are just joint 19th in the Premier League’s top goal-scorer list. Everton in 11th place have three players on that list.
Fans welcomed Van Gaal ditching the overly cautious approach which has cast such a malign influence on the club’s season. He made so many notes during the NUFC game that he may need a new pad for Sunday’s clash.
Manchester United have not played like Manchester United should, but the early stability was built on a consistent defence in front of the peerless David de Gea. When United push forward – or take more risks in Van Gaal’s parlance because it means less possession – the defence looks nervy, though several defenders remain injured and players were deployed out of position last Tuesday night.
Matteo Darmian, usually a right back, played left back. Ashley Young is not a full back, while Daley Blind is hardly a centre-half to match the legends of yore. Marouanne Fellaini struggled in a defensive role.
United don’t look comfortable when they’re in front and Newcastle’s late equaliser was no surprise to those who’d watch Swansea enjoy late chances at Old Trafford in the previous league game.
After a dreadful run at Anfield where Rooney traditionally struggles to perform – he finds it harder on the smaller pitches of his home city – United surprisingly beat Liverpool away last March with Juan Mata scoring twice in a 2-1 win.
Then as now, United were in a fight for a top four finish, with Liverpool a direct rival who’d looked strong as they beat Manchester City weeks before.
Mata was dropped for the first time in the league against Newcastle but could be recalled to Anfield given he has scored three times in four games against Liverpool in the Premier League and was in no doubt when I spoke to him last Autumn what it means to the club.
At Liverpool, I felt that everything was going right from the beginning. Every pass, every situation. Then I scored the first goal after a great pass from Ander, then the second from a bicycle kick in the second half. We took photos in the dressing room after because we felt so happy. It was a massive win for us.
Winning against Liverpool is big, winning at Anfield even better. I could feel how happy people were, not just the players but the employees of the club who work at the training ground. They are local United fans and they told me how they felt for weeks after. That felt good.
If nothing else United will arrive for Sunday’s live game on the back of three straight league wins against traditionally their greatest rivals who have an injury crisis of their own to contend with.
While United have said they expect a quiet transfer window in January, they have identified players they want to strengthen the team. Signing them from clubs who don’t want to sell is the problem, even if the players want to move to Old Trafford.
A repeat of last season’s exploits at Anfield – and the spring flurry that followed which has been the highlight of Van Gaal’s reign so far – would go a long way to lift the mood of all at the club.
Prediction: Liverpool 0 United 0.