Liverpool: Latest Trip to Manchester United to Be Handled with Care

Mark Jones@@Mark_Jones86Featured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2013

MANSFIELD, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06:  Luis Suarez of Liverpool appears to control the ball with his hand during the FA Cup with Budweiser Third Round match between Mansfield Town and Liverpool at One Call Stadium on January 6, 2013 in Mansfield, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

For Liverpool to succeed against Manchester United at Old Trafford, they always need to approach one of their toughest fixtures of the season with clear heads.

It’s something that they haven’t been able to do since the memorable 4-1 win at the home of their old rivals in March 2009, a match which the Reds entered having been told by anyone they’d dare to listen to that they were out of the title race and that United would run away with their record-equalling success.

Of course Sir Alex Ferguson’s men eventually did earn that title, but not before Liverpool had given them an almighty scare as a team who had nothing to lose and everything to gain inflicted a heaviest home defeat in 17 years upon their hosts. As Liverpool minds have filled with various issues ahead of the four Manchester meetings since, the Reds have lost every one.

In March 2010 the Reds pitched up at Old Trafford with the Rafael Benitez empire a mere seven Premier League matches away from eroding and off-field in-fighting threatening to floor the club completely. Fernando Torres gave them an early lead but they eventually fell to a Park Ji-Sung winner.

Six months later it was Roy Hodgson who brought Liverpool to face his good friend Ferguson.

The current England boss was still in the early days of his reign but he’d already alienated fans with poor choices of words and even poorer signings―Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen both started against United―and with a feeling of unease growing the Reds lost 3-2 as Dimitar Berbatov scored a hat-trick.

The next trip to Old Trafford was to come less than four months later in the third round of the FA Cup, and just a day after fans could rejoice at the removal of the by now deeply unpopular Hodgson.

Kenny Dalglish was plucked from a cruise in Dubai and thrown straight into the dugout, and whilst that might have made for a popular decision amongst supporters it was hardly ideal preparation for a match against the team who would go on to be league champions. Liverpool lost 1-0 to a debatable penalty as Steven Gerrard was sent off.

February 2012 brought about the most recent visit before this Sunday, with―as the TV companies loved to remind us―the fixture falling just after Luis Suarez had completed his ban for the Patrice Evra incident. Tensions were already high before Suarez needlessly inflamed them by refusing to shake Evra’s hand, and Wayne Rooney’s two goals proved more decisive than the Uruguayan’s one as United won again.

This time around, the focus is inevitably on Suarez once more, but the agenda-driven hysteria surrounding the fact that a football hit the forward’s hand last weekend is unlikely to affect anybody’s mindset on Sunday. It’s not as if Suarez was going to get an easy ride from the home fans anyway.

So Liverpool can, for the first time in four years and five Old Trafford visits, simply focus on the job at hand.

Whisper it quietly but they’re in decent form too, with seven wins from their last nine matches in all competitions, a position in the top half of the table eyeing an assault on the European places, and players showing a real focus and belief that the football being played under Brendan Rodgers will eventually guide them where they want to go.

With a forward making a league debut for the club in Daniel Sturridge and a youngster celebrating a new contract in the form of Andre Wisdom, it is the on-pitch stories that are dominating for once as Liverpool go into arguably their toughest game of this and every season.

Handling may have been in the news this week but it is the way that Liverpool handle the pressure on Sunday that will ultimately prove decisive as they face up to the current best team in the country.

Ignore the latest Suarez sideshow and for the first time in a long time, the Reds haven’t got any distractions as they do so.