Liverpool v Man Utd preview
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Last Updated: 06/03/11 12:55pm
Fergie v Dalglish at go head-to-head at Anfield
To the uninitiated Sunday's gargantuan clash between Liverpool and Manchester United could be interpreted as being a mere sub-plot to what might develop between the warring Glaswegians on the touchline.
Sir Alex Ferguson's loose tongue caught the attention of the Football Association this week but it's unlikely a slap on the wrists will silence his verbal tirades should things not go his way on Merseyside.
Much has been made of relations between messrs Dalglish and Ferguson in the build-up to a game that could go a long way to defining the title's destiny, but it will be what transpires on the field rather than off it that will determine North West bragging rights.
The reality is that while Kenny Dalglish had a twinkle in his eye this week when pointing out that Liverpool hold a superior record in Europe to a United side closing in on a 19th title that would set them apart from their Merseyside counterparts, it is with genuine respect that they regard each other.
Born of solid Glaswegian stock the pair had their attitude to life shaped in the tough docklands of Govan, with the principles of hard work, discipline and endeavour likely to be rally calls in both dressing rooms come Sunday.
In the stands, though, a rivalry less cordial reigns supreme. While Liverpool retain hope of gatecrashing this season's Champions League party by snatching fourth spot, a costly defeat at Upton Park last time out likely extinguished such lofty aspirations and thus, those with a scouse twang may settle for being party poopers rather than attendees.
Gary Neville did his best Fred the Red impersonation at Stamford Bridge in midweek when turning the air blue in the away end but should he be planning a similar trip to Anfield, we suggest on the grounds of safety he wears the giant devil head he dons on match days at Old Trafford by way of disguise.
It's unlikely the match officials will be overly disappointed by the absence of agent provocateur Neville but Ferguson just might be, as he looks to assemble a watertight defence shorn of its talisman.
The most untimely of red cards shown to Nemanja Vidic in defeat to Chelsea leaves a Serbian-sized hole in United's back four. Skipper Vidic has been nothing shy of herculean this season in dragging what many, harshly perhaps, consider to be a mediocre United side to the summit and his suspension is compounded by Rio Ferdinand's absence through injury.
Chris Smalling has largely been immaculate in Ferdinand's place, save for conceding a late penalty in West London, but Wes Brown - who Ferguson has said will start on Sunday - lacks anything like the match sharpness needed to perform in a game of such magnitude.
Murmurs coming out of Manchester have suggested Ferguson's declaration of faith in Brown could be kidology, with Jonny Evans reportedly having returned to training at the start of this week. The inclusion of either would hardly be ideal though, with Evans neither match fit nor buoyant with confidence after a shaky campaign.
It could be that Ferguson elects to move John O'Shea inside and start with Rafael at right-back, although the Brazilian's buccaneering forward forays are undermined by question marks over his defensive capabilities and a temperament that at times can look foolhardy, at best, in showpiece games.
For the Chelsea game Ferguson named the same side in consecutive matches for the first time since May 2008 but even disregarding forced changes, it is expected the Scot will alter personnel.
Many were surprised by United's gung-ho attitude in the capital given Ferguson usually elects to play a lone striker against leading sides, so it'll be interesting to see whether he reverts to type against Liverpool. Javier Hernandez looked a little lost against Chelsea and it could be that Dimitar Berbatov is given the nod to start alongside Rooney, or more likely the Mexican marksman will make way for additional midfield bodies.
It could prove to be a momentous day for Ryan Giggs, a prime candidate to start if as expected United pack the midfield, as any sighting of the Welshman will see him become United's all-time record league appearance holder outright, having equalled Sir Bobby Charlton's tally of 606 in midweek.
The plaudits will rightly rain down on the oldest swinger in town if Giggs figures, but Liverpool fans will be more focused on the newest addition to their ranks if, as expected, Andy Carroll makes his Anfield bow.
Dalglish, whose record against Ferguson as a manager reads just four wins from 21 matches, could be tempted to pitch Carroll straight in to test United's makeshift centre-half partnership but the likelihood is that the £35million record buy will start on the bench.
"I am sure Fergie would love to know what is going on with Andy Carroll," he joked earlier in the week, before rather obliquely adding: "What I can tell you is that his progress has been exactly what we had hoped it would be."
A previously successful 3-5-2 formation employed away from home since Dalglish's return to the dugout went awry at West Ham and a return to a back four, as his been his wont when playing at Anfield in any case, is the more likely formation to be used.
A hamstring injury prohibits the involvement of the in-form Martin Kelly, which in turn will see Glenn Johnson drop back from a more advanced role at left-wing back to right full-back.
Joe Cole made a cameo appearance in East London last weekend but while he's champing at the bit for playing time, it seems more likely Dalglish will opt to deploy Maxi Rodriguez on the left-hand side.
Support for Luiz Suarez will primarily come from Dirk Kuyt and fans' favourite Raul Meireles, who should shake off a knee injury to pose plenty of problems for Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, with his trademark runs from deep notoriously difficult to pick up.
On Sunday the talking stops though, as the 22 players selected go forth into a battle that is not only steeped in history and rich in rivalry but one that could not be more important in terms of deciding the destiny of this season's Premier League crown.
King Kenny will not give up his moniker without an almighty fight, but then Fergie's hardly averse to a tear-up either.
Possible starting XIs
Liverpool: Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio, Maxi, Lucas, Gerrard, Meireles, Kuyt, Suarez
United: Van der Sar, O'Shea, Smalling, Brown, Evra, Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Nani, Rooney
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