Thursday, March 18, 2010

Manchester United vs. Liverpool: EPL Destiny on the Line for Both Clubs

Manchester United and Liverpool meet at Old Trafford this Sunday in a game that will almost certainly define their seasons.

If United loses, they will lose ground in the title race, while a loss for Liverpool will increase the mounting pressure on their beleaguered manager, Rafael Benitez.

Ferguson the Wily Manager

For many reasons, it is probably the wrong time for Liverpool to be traveling to the white-hot cauldron of Old Trafford. Having dispatched AC Milan 4-0 with childlike ease last Wednesday, Fulham then walked into the lion's den—and were duly sent packing with a 3-0 drubbing.

In short, United are on song—and they are very much the team you do not want to travel to at this stage of the season. One of the most vital elements of Alex Ferguson's coaching acumen is his uncanny ability to get his team to peak as we enter the business end of the league.

His team has stepped up a gear during the last couple of weeks—since Everton beat them 3-1—and not since 2002 have they managed to score as many goals in one season: 70 in 30 games. And you have to go all the way back to January to find the last goal they conceded at home.

Wayne Rooney has been firing on all cylinders since the start of the season, and he has carried the team through games when it looked as if this title challenge was going to slip away before it really started.

Much to Ferguson's credit, other players have begun to share in the burden Rooney has carried for so long. Antonio Valencia, despite a quiet start to his Red Devils career, has been brilliant since November.

Paul Scholes still defies Father Time and produces performances that players half his age would die for, and Dimitar Berbatov is finally beginning to give regular quality performances.

If he can keep this up, United's attack will be simply frightening as the end of the season draws in.

Park Ji-Sung has continued his selfless existence in the United midfield—and given his recent form and phenomenal honesty on the pitch, it is almost impossible to see him out of the side to face Liverpool this weekend.

United's Predicted Starting Lineup

Edwin Van Der Sar is guaranteed to start in goal. Since his return to the United starting lineup, they have managed to keep five clean sheets in eight games—no small coincidence.

Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic will also start—and it will be very interesting to see how the giant Serbian stands up to the power and pace of one Fernando Torres, who always seems to give him a torrid time. Rio Ferdinand should partner Vidic at the back, so the only real question is who Fergie will start at right full.

Given the options, it will either be Gary Neville or Rafael. Despite Neville having a field day against Ronaldinho, who managed to make the United man look 21 again, he should not play. His legs are gone at this level, and the pace his protege will provide could be key to United shackling Torres.

The next big question is whether Ferguson will start with four or five in midfield. Again, the system Benitez has always employed dictates that the Scot has to match him man- for-man—and for that reason, I see United going 4-5-1, which means Berbatov will start on the bench.

Valencia, Park, Fletcher, and Carrick will all start—be it in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1—so the only question remains for midfield: Scholes or Nani?

The importance of the game would suggest that Ferguson will go with tried and trusted over flair and unpredictability—with Scholes getting the nod over Nani.

That leaves Rooney as the lone striker. This season, he has really come to the fore as a world-class talent—and now the other players look to him to not only make things happen, as before, but also to dig them out of their holes, too.

His industry and honesty mean he will always be a threat for this Liverpool defence—which is blessed with neither the speed nor the strength to combat the United front man.

A win for United would serve as a huge psychological boost as the intensity of their run reaches fever pitch—and it would set them up nicely to welcome Chelsea two weeks later.

Tough Times for Liverpool and Rafa

Liverpool, for their part, have had their worst season in living memory. Dumped out of the Champions League before Christmas and losing 15 matches in one season, the high- spending Anfield outfit now faces the extra embarrassment of missing out on the Champions League completely.

This is a must-win game for Rafael Benitez and his lacklustre side. Lose and the odds of them finishing fourth will increase exponentially—and despite Thursday's 3-0 win over Lille, the Reds flattered to deceive on the night, and they have yet to turn the corner on a miserable season.

This game not only provides that corner, but it also resembles a last chance for the Reds.

Should Liverpool lose and their rivals win, the points difference would almost certainly be too much for them to bridge, given there are so few games left to play.

Liverpool's Predicted Starting Lineup

Pepe Reina is the only player who has lived up to his billing this year, and without him between the sticks, it is frightening to think of what could have happened to Liverpool's season.

Glen Johnsen will start at right full, with Park most probably his opposite number. It will be interesting to see how the duo combat each other and how United look to break the indiscipline of the defender—or whether he will stay loyal to Rafa's orders and guard the "bank."

Emiliano Insua should start on the left. So far this season, his performances have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The Argentinian youngster is not blessed with pace— and as such, he must choose his forward forays carefully. The enemy he faces on Sunday will be ruthless and swift should he stray out of position too often.

Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, and Kryiagkos will battle it out for the central berths, but the Greek international should at least find himself on the bench.

As ever, Javier Mascherano will shield the back four, with the only question for Rafa being Lucas or Aquilani. Looking at the season, it is clear that the Spaniard prefers the creatively numb Brazilian—but he will offer a defensive mind and honesty that the Italian is incapable of offering in the middle.

Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayoun, and Ryan Babel will battle it out for the two wide positions as a fully fit midfield should provide Rafa with plenty of questions—except for Albert Riera, that is...

Steven Gerrard and Torres will act as link and striker, and the key to unlocking United will fall to this pair—as it almost does in every match.

So far this year, Gerrard has been a shadow of his former self—and he will be looking to improve upon that poor form as the World Cup gets closer. He is no longer the untouchable player he was—and given the right circumstances, he could find himself outside Fabio Capello's starting XI for Aston Villa's James Milner.

Not only does this game represent a turning point in Liverpool's season, but it also represents a turning point in Gerrard's season.

Torres, who unbelievably finds himself on the bench for Spain, will be the key for Liverpool. His Indian sign over Vidic is sure to be on the mind of the Serbian—and it would not be unusual to see Liverpool try to isolate Vidic early on.

Only One Winner?

Looking at the form book, one could only pick United as a winner of this game. But these matches notoriously have their own style of ecosystems and are literally impossible to call.

For instance, no one would have predicted that Liverpool would have destroyed United 4-1 in this fixture last season.

When push comes to shove, I expect Manchester United to have too much for Liverpool in this game.

United will push their wide players right down onto Liverpool's full backs—but with Liverpool pretty much employing a defensive eight and trying to catch teams on the break, they will contribute to their own lack of ambition.

That will leave United's midfield to pick up Gerrard in an effort to snuff out their one consistent creative source in midfield.

Saying all that, Liverpool will fight tooth and nail for every inch of ground—and the onus will be put on the likes of Fletcher and Carrick to create something out of nothing as the Reds will leave no blade of grass unguarded.

Almost too difficult to call, but it is hard to see United not scoring...