Writer: Gavin Kelley-Day
Date:Friday January 11 2013
Liverpool have had a full week to prepare for arguably their biggest and most difficult game of the season. Fierce rivals Manchester United, who've also been without a midweek fixture, currently top the Premier League standings by seven points and have scored a staggering 54 goals in their 21 games to date.
By contrast the red half of Merseyside lie eighth; 21 points and 20 goals worse off. Although they have impressed on occasion including in their previous two league matches which both resulted in 3-0 wins (over Sunderland and Queens Park Rangers).
Both sides endured a difficult match last time out in the FA Cup with United needing a late Robin van Persie strike to force a replay against West Ham United following a 2-2 draw at Upton Park.
Liverpool did ultimately secure their progress into Round Four at the first time of asking but needed a contentious Luis Suarez goal to overcome non-league Mansfield Town.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson speaking at his pre-match press conference: "Of course, it's Liverpool, a derby game. It never changes, it's always an immensely important game and also intense and emotional.
"Everything you can think of in a derby game will probably be there on Sunday. At least we go into the game in reasonable form."
England international Wayne Rooney is set to be United's biggest name absentee with the Liverpool-born striker ruled out of the fixture by manager Sir Alex Ferguson courtesy of a knee injury picked up in training over Christmas. However, he would not be the first United player, supposedly absent from the fixture, to make a miraculous recovery in time to play. Should that not be the case, as is likely in truth, then Javier Hernandez is the normal choice to take his place in attack although Danny Welbeck also provides a high-calibre alternative. Other injury concerns include defender Phil Jones (knock), Portuguese winger Nani and Brazilian midfielder Anderson (both of whom have hamstring problems). Captain Nemanja Vidic may need to be content with a place on the bench as he continues his comeback from knee surgery. Youngsters Davide Petrucci and Scott Wootton have both joined Peterborough United on loan.
De Gea, Smalling, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Valencia, Cleverley, Carrick, Kagawa, Hernandez, van Persie.
Surely the most unlucky of all the English based players to miss out on a place in the all-Spanish based Fifpro team of the year announced this week? Van Persie regularly won games last season whilst at Arsenal single-handidly, as Liverpool can testify, and he has continued the trend since making a £24m move to Old Trafford over the summer. His impact, 20 goals in just 26 appearances so far, has even led Roberto Mancini (manager of reigning Premier League champions Manchester City) to suggest his signing could decide the destination of this season's trophy. The Dutchman is a deadly finisher but he also possesses a brilliant football brain which sees him notch a number of assists for his team.
Italian striker Fabio Borini is back in training after several months out with a broken foot but will not yet be risked. New arrival Daniel Sturridge, who scored seven minutes into his debut last weekend, is still short of full match fitness after an unproductive time at Chelsea and potentially may drop to the bench. Should he start it will be interesting to see how Rodgers shapes his forward line and if, as expected, top-scorer Luis Suarez is moved wider to accommodate the 23-year-old. Elsewhere Spanish left-back Jose Enrique is out for another month with a hamstring tear meaning Andre Wisdom is likely to again deputise with Glen Johnson moving across from right-back. The only other known absentee is defender Martin Kelly who is penciled in for a mid-March return after cruciate ligament surgery.
Reina, Wisdom, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, Lucas, Allen, Gerrard, Downing, Sterling, Suarez.
The 32-year-old England captain acknowledged this week that he felt his form was improving and, ominously for opposing teams, that he was now looking to add more goals to his game. The past couple of seasons have been blighted by injury but with Gerrard now fully fit, and freed up to be more positive by the return of Lucas Leiva, we are starting to see his marauding presence influence games once more. The local-born midfielder had always been a big-game player and they don't come any bigger than a clash with the Red Devils. By and large if Gerrard plays well, then so do Liverpool and despite the amounts of potential in the side he is generally regarded, alongside Suarez, as the visitors' only world-class operator.
• Manchester United and Liverpool have contested 186 matches during their respective histories. United have the upper hand with 73 wins to Liverpool's 62 and 51 draws. United have scored 258 goals in total compared to 240 by Liverpool.
• United's current tally of 52 points is the third highest of all time at this stage of a Premier League campaign (Chelsea had 58 in 2005-06 and United themselves had 53 in 2006-07).
• Both sides have strikers in red-hot form. Van Persie has eight in eight Premier League games whilst Suarez has five in his last four.
• Surprisingly, despite scoring 20 less league goals so far this season, Liverpool have mustered many more shots than United; 412 compared to 333 by Sunday's hosts. Remarkably 123 of Liverpool's attempts have come from Suarez alone.
• Should United take the lead this weekend they will be strong favourites to secure all three points especially considering they are the only team in the division not to drop any points from a winning position on home soil.
High-profile whistle blower Howard Webb will be the man in the middle for this potentially explosive encounter. The 41-year-old made history in 2010 when he became the first man to officiate the final of both the Champions League and the World Cup in the same year. Webb last took control of these two sides in an FA Cup tie two years ago in which he awarded United a controversial penalty and sent off Gerrard as United won 1-0. Famously the then Liverpool winger Ryan Babbel was subsequently fined after posting a mocked-up picture of Webb wearing a United shirt on social network site Twitter. This season, in all competitions, the South Yorkshire based referee has shown 81 yellow and 3 red cards in 23 games.
On paper there is only one winner in this match and even the most ardent Liverpool fan must begrudgingly admire the manner of United's free-flowing football this season. They are not without their weaknesses however and Liverpool may just have the personnel to expose the frailties which predominantly lie at the heart of the hosts' rearguard. Whichever centre-back pairing Sir Alex has selected has failed to keep the opposition at bay. A situation further compromised by the lack of a clear first choice goalkeeper between the sticks. Indeed their total of 28 goals conceded is more than anyone else in the top half of the table. Should Suarez and/or Gerrard be at the top of their game then the Reds will always have a chance against anyone. These fixtures are often tight and tense affairs but we can see goals this time around.Vital Liverpool predicts a 3-2 LFC defeat.
Manchester United - FA Cup v West Ham United at Old Trafford on Wednesday 16th January 2013, kick off 8.05pm (live on ITV).
Liverpool - Premier League v Norwich City at Anfield on Saturday 19th January 2013, kick off 3.00pm.
So that's what we think, how about you? Let us know your thoughts and predictions for the game below or vote in our poll to the right...
Click here to read former Red Mark Lawrenson's prediction
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Date:Friday January 11 2013
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