By Séamus Leonard
So far, so good. With a maximum six points from its two Premier League games to date, Liverpool is enjoying its best start to a season since the 2008/09 when Rafa Benitez’s charges came within four points of ending the club’s two-decade wait for a 19th top-flight title.
The team that clinched the title that year was Manchester United, and the Red Devils will be the visitors at Anfield on Sunday as Liverpool faces its first major challenge of the campaign. The two sides will become intimately acquainted in September, as they are also penciled in to clash in the third round of the Capital One Cup later in the month. Liverpool secured passage in the competition with a 4-2 victory over Notts County on Tuesday night. That extra-time victory came at a cost, however, as many of Liverpool’s first-teamers had to endure 120 minutes of action, while Kolo Toure, Joe Allen and newly-arrived loan signing Aly Cissokho all sustained injuries against English league football’s oldest club.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers delivered an upbeat assessment of Toure’s injury on Friday, saying that the Ivorian center-back’s groin problem was nowhere near as serious as was initially feared. Midfielder Allen’s hamstring injury may keep him out of Sunday’s game but is of no great concern. Cissokho’s ankle damage, on the other hand, will sideline the left-back for between four and six weeks.
Despite Tuesday’s game not going exactly to plan, there were still some positives to be taken from the encounter. Liverpool were excellent in the first half with strikes from winger Raheem Sterling and striker Daniel Sturridge putting the Redmen in control at 2-0 at the break. However, Liverpool’s tendency to drop off in the second period (as happened in the league victories over Stoke and Aston Villa) let County back into the game.
Captain Steven Gerrard unfairly attributed the complacency to younger players in the team not knowing how to close out the game. Liverpool had more than enough experience on the pitch (Simon Mignolet, Glen Johnson, Toure, Daniel Agger, Allen, Gerrard and Sturridge) to finish the job in 90 minutes. Indeed when they went down to 10 men in extra time after Toure was stretchered off, it was one of the starlets – Sterling – who put in a performance worthy of his name at right-back.
On the bright side, as many commentators have noted, it was a game that this Liverpool side could easily have lost last year. And while they may have made it unnecessarily difficult, Rodgers’ squad found a way to dig themselves out of a hole. That’s an important ability to have.
The meeting of Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield is always one of the biggest occasions of the season, but the fixture is sure to have added spice now that David Moyes has been installed as manager of the Red Devils. The 50-year-old Scot spent 11 years in charge at Everton and had a poor record in Merseyside derbies. In fact, he left Goodison Park having never recorded a victory at Anfield. How Liverpool fans hope the Bearsden native’s misery on the south side of Stanley Park continues this weekend.
Moyes has enjoyed a productive start to his tenure at Old Trafford. His side recorded an impressive 4-1 win away to Swansea on the first day of the season and followed that up with a 0-0 draw with Chelsea at home last Monday. The future of Wayne Rooney seems to have been resolved, with the striker opting not to hand in a transfer request despite Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho’s attempts to lure the England international to Stamford Bridge. Rooney was undoubtedly the man of the match against Mourinho’s men, but he has twice now tried to engineer a move away from United and Moyes will have a big task attempting to manage the egos of both Rooney and Robin van Persie.
There has been much criticism of Moyes’ lack of activity in the transfer market this summer, a problem both he and Rodgers share. Alex Ferguson led United to Premier League success last season, but with Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham all shelling out big money to improve their squads, there is the chance that failure to reinforce will scupper United’s hopes of retaining the title.
Liverpool has a decent record against Sunday’s opponents at Anfield in recent years, although the visitors did sneak a 2-1 victory at the L4 venue last September. Liverpool was very unlucky on the day, however, with Jonjo Shelvey harshly sent off for a challenge with Jonny Evans, while United’s winner came from a highly dubious penalty which van Persie converted.
Moyes is unlikely to tinker too much, if at all, with his starting 11 from the Chelsea clash. So Rooney is likely to play just off van Persie, as United try to develop a devastating partnership between the two. Liverpool guarded very well against the counter-attack at Villa Park last Saturday, and it would be strange if Rodgers opted not to employ a 4-2-3-1 system in order to deny United much opportunity to hit the hosts on the break.
With Luis Suarez still suspended, the only real selection dilemma Rodgers faces is whether to risk starting Toure (who is match fit but may not be 100% after Tuesday) or opt for Martin Skrtel (who has returned to full fitness after a knee injury but has not featured in a competitive game this season). Rodgers has proven time and again that he does not have faith in the Slovak international, so you would expect Toure to start if at all possible.
While Liverpool should not approach this game with trepidation, the importance of maintaining an unbeaten record before the international break cannot be underestimated. If the defensive frailties that surfaced on Tuesday night can be corrected and a third consecutive clean sheet in the league can be attained, then it would not be surprising if Sturridge continued his match-winning start to the season.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports, with coverage starting at 0830 EST.
Liverpool v Manchester United
When: Sunday, September 1, 0830 EST/1330 BST
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Aston Villa 0-1 Liverpool, Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea
League Position 2012-13: Liverpool 2nd (6 points), Manchester United 4th (4 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Toure, Agger, Jose Enrique
MID: Aspas, Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson, Coutinho
Subs from: Jones, Flanagan, Kelly, Skrtel, Wisdom, Luis Alberto, Allen, Ibe, Borini, Sterling.
Projected Manchester United Starting 11
GK: De Gea
DEF: Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra
MID: Valencia, Cleverley, Carrick, Rooney, Welbeck
FW: Van Persie
Subs from: Lindegaard, Johnstone, Buttner, Fabio, Smalling, Giggs, Anderson, Keane, Zaha, Januzaj, Lingard, Evans, Young, Powell, Kagawa.
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard