Manchester United entertain Liverpool this weekend in the biggest game between the two clubs in 10 years and it’s a game that will shape both club’s immediate futures.
The fixture has for too long been played out with one team ebbing and the other flowing (or both teams ebbing) and it has lost some of its relevance as a result. But with both teams coming into this game at full tilt, its significance won’t be lost on anyone.
United have undisputedly bossed the fixture in the Premier League years, winning 28 of the 53 league games between the clubs since 1992. That dominance has continued this decade, with United enjoying 10 wins from 18 games against the Merseyside club.
In that period, Liverpool have won just four league games against their bitter rivals, and have won just 14 times, half of United’s total, since the Premier League’s inception.
If Liverpool’s last two significant title challenges are anything to go by they always seem to come good against United when it matters most.
In March 2009, Liverpool headed to Old Trafford in what was their final chance to directly affect United’s record-equaling title bid. The match is infamous for United’s capitulation and Fernando Torres making a mockery of Nemanja Vidic, who had been hitherto impenetrable at the heart of United’s defence.
The 4-1 victory completed a league double over United, Liverpool’s first since 2002, and became United’s biggest home defeat for 17 years. Five years later, almost to the day, Liverpool again arrived at Old Trafford in March with aspirations of winning that elusive Premier League crown. Similar to 2009, they had narrowly beaten United at Anfield early in the season and were looking to do the double over David Moyes’ side.
That’s just about where the similarities end. The United team in 2009 was one of the best teams in club football, the United team of 2014 was anything but. Badly in need of rebuilding and being managed by someone out of his depth, United had limped through the season, suffering embarrassing home defeats to teams that didn’t tend to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford with frightening regularity.
What transpired against Liverpool was the absolute nadir of the post-Ferguson era. Never have United surrendered so meekly as they did against Liverpool five years ago. This was United’s last chance to put a dent in Liverpool’s title bid and they just lay aside and let Liverpool do as they pleased. In reality, 3-0 flattered United and it proved to be the beginning of the end for David Moyes.
Winning at Old Trafford in 2014 didn’t crown Liverpool as champions, and winning there on Sunday won’t either, but it will go a long way. For one thing, Liverpool still had their two chief title rivals in Manchester City and Chelsea to play after they beat United in 2014. For another, the result didn’t even put them top of the league.
Victory on Sunday will propel the Reds back to the Premier League summit, and they have also played City twice, so they will already be in a better position than they were five years ago.
That’s not to mention the massive confidence boost winning in Manchester would give them. With City in such ruthless form of late, any Liverpool slip up will be seen as a ‘bottle job,’ so if Liverpool can keep their heads and win arguably their toughest remaining Premier League fixture, it would be a massive psychological boost.
For United, the game represents the biggest moment in Solskjaer’s fledgling managerial tenure. Losing to Liverpool, as painful as it may be for many United fans, will not be definitive in Solskjaer’s job application. Beating them, however, virtually guarantees the Norwegian the job on a permanent basis, especially if Liverpool go on to miss out on the league title.
Despite winning 11 out of his first 13 games, Solskjaer still faces scrutiny from some sections of United fans, along with the obligatory scrutiny from rival fans. The argument against Solskjaer is that United have had a relatively easy run and that any big team they’ve come up against has been shockingly out of form, apart from PSG who they lost against.
The argument, for the most part, is baffling, especially when it is coming from Manchester United fans who are somehow under the illusion that Jose Mourinho would do as well as the Norwegian.
Losing to Liverpool will only add fuel to that fire and Solskjaer will want United to avoid another humbling defeat at the hands of their arch rivals like the 3-1 defeat last December. That annihilation was the last game of Jose Mourinho’s regime and Sunday will show just how far United have come since parting ways with the Special One.
If Solskjaer can manufacture a win at the weekend, he will make it impossible for the United board to hire anyone else, unless they want to make themselves even more unpopular than they already are.