Liverpool versus Manchester United really ought to be English football’s version of River Plate versus Boca Juniors or Real Madrid versus Barcelona, a game that captivates a nation and even the rest of the globe, a showpiece for English passion and rivalry.
Instead, it has come to be a fixture to be endured, even for the neutral.
A glance through meetings in the 21st century produces a binary readout of 1-1 and 0-0 results reflecting afternoons where the bus has been parked by both teams.
United’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford in March was the first time in five matches either of the rivals had scored more than one goal.
It is the game neither team wants to lose and is thus usually played out in a fearful fashion. The Sir Alex Ferguson nostalgists might yearn for their great lost leader, but his usual practice at Anfield was to dig in for the smash and grab – even when United were by far superior to Liverpool.
It could make for grim viewing.
Though at least those matches brimmed with passion and genuine enmity where there has been a noticeable lack of fervour in recent years. The swelled presence of Manchester City has driven something of a wedge between the historic enemies.
This season, Liverpool are competing for the title with Pep Guardiola’s team while United were chasing City this time last year.
For Ferguson, Anfield was a place for “choking back the vomit”, as he infamously described an Easter 1988 3-3 draw with the last great Liverpool team, managed by Kenny Dalglish and streaking away to the league title.
All that Ferguson’s men, who ended up a distant second at the end of the season, could do was to try and disrupt Liverpool’s ambitions. Soon enough, and barring a couple of Liverpool title challenges, the boot would be on the other foot for two decades.
This year, derailing Liverpool is pretty much the limit of United’s ambitions. That they are 16 points behind Liverpool after just 16 matches is a result of Jurgen Klopp presiding over his club’s best ever start to a league season and Jose Mourinho presiding over United’s worst position at this point in a Premier League season since David Moyes’ doomed regime five years ago.
Instead of fighting Liverpool and City for a title, Mourinho is left to defend his reputation, while Klopp could hardly be more exalted on Merseyside. And it is becoming an increasingly rearguard action for United’s manager.
On Wednesday, a 2-1 loss at Valencia produced another of the dreadful performances that have become a hallmark of a regime that surely circles the drain.
Though United were already through to the Champions League last 16, Young Boys’ shock defeat of Juventus might have opened up an easy route to the quarter-finals.
But by the time that opportunity came about, United were already 2-0 down in the Mestalla, with Phil Jones’ latest comedy own-goal representative of another farcical showing.
Even in a game that shouldn’t have mattered, Mourinho’s United found a way to lower themselves.
And now Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich lie in wait in February.
“I didn’t learn anything from this game,” said United’s manager, stepping away once more from blame and proclaiming qualification for the knockouts to be the real quiz. Defeat at Liverpool on Sunday – and a heavy defeat at that – would not allow him such wiggle room.
The expectation, then, must be for Mourinho to revert to type and bed in for the 0-0 and hope that Marouane Fellaini can conjure something up as a late substitute.
If Mourinho wants to survive at United, which is in itself difficult to tell considering a hangdog demeanour that suggests he would rather be anywhere but Manchester while he continues to reside in the hotel, then results like last week’s 4-1 defeat of Fulham will not save him.
Beating Liverpool at their home, though, is still a way to win favour, at least on a temporary basis.
Chief suit Ed Woodward bought Louis van Gaal highly expensive bottles of red wine after winning twice at Anfield though later sacked the Dutchman for failing to qualify for the following season’s Champions League, a fate that is likely to await Mourinho should that become mathematically impossible in the spring.
There is another slab of pride at stake.
In four matches between their Liverpool and United teams, Klopp is yet to get the better of him, though March’s win, courtesy of two Marcus Rashford goals, sits alongside three forgettable draws.
There is little warmth between the pair, perhaps even less than that Mourinho shares with Pep Guardiola, and United’s manager has made more than a few barbed comments in the direction of actually having won trophies in England while Klopp has lost a series of finals.
Down the years, he has enjoyed being a leading agitator of Liverpool.
Can he get into their heads this time? It could be the ingredient that restores fire to a fixture that been tepid for too long.