Liverpool have made a great start to the 2013-14 Premier League season by winning their opening two matches for the first time since 2008. But their next fixture offers one of the toughest challenges of the season in beating rivals Manchester United—and stopping striker Robin van Persie.
Already up and running with two goals on the league's opening day, last season's top scorer looks set for an equally impressive campaign this time around as he leads the Red Devils' attack.
Meanwhile, Liverpool have kept two clean sheets from their two league games so far and will need to be every bit as resolute as they have been if they are to keep that run going.
Goals vs. Saves
Liverpool have so far limited their two opponents this season, Stoke City and Aston Villa, to a total of nine shots on target per game between them. United, meanwhile, managed eight on target in their only fixture of the season so far—and scored four goals from those efforts.
The Reds might have drawn one or both of their games had it not been for late interventions from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet—particularly a last-minute penalty save against Stoke City. The Dutch striker for United attempted a high total of seven shots against Swansea, resulting in his two goals.
Two goals, two clean sheets and two players in form. How those two fare on the day in direct combat against each other might go some distance in deciding the fine line between winning and losing.
Even so, there are plenty of other factors to consider before Liverpool's last line of defence is called upon.
Van Persie's Movement
Liverpool's big task in terms of stopping van Persie is going to be who takes charge in monitoring his movement.
Between Kolo Toure and Lucas Leiva, there is a 15-metre gap the forward is going to look to dip into and exploit at every opportunity, linking play with his attacking midfield teammates and turning toward goal to shoot from range when possible.
Lucas will have to remain far more vigilant in holding his position in front of that back four than he has proven so far. Toure, as the experienced leader at the back, will be expected to make the right calls on when to step out of line to press van Persie and when to hold the line. Inside the penalty area, Toure will fancy his chances against his former teammate in one-on-one situations, but the United striker needs only a quick change of feet to get a shot away.
Tight marking inside the box is a must, as long as the marker can cope with van Persie's quick changes of direction and instant shooting.
Is Stopping the Dutch Striker Enough?
At home, with a good record so far and full of confidence after two wins, Liverpool must be feeling optimistic about their chances of keeping van Persie at bay.
The problem is that alongside him will be the likes of Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney or Javier Hernandez, as well as a range of goalscoring midfielders attacking from the second line.
As well as Liverpool defended in the second half against Aston Villa on Saturday, they'll have to up their game another level to keep United out for an entire match at Anfield. The one glaringly obvious addition to this argument is that even if van Persie or his teammates score, the Reds will be more than capable of finding the net themselves, especially with their own in-form striker on the pitch in Daniel Sturridge.
Lucas and Gerrard are going to have to work exceedingly hard—likely with Jordan Henderson deployed in front of them to offer additional midfield power and work rate—to keep the ball away from van Persie by pressuring the United midfield. Stop the supply to stop the scoring is likely to be the mantra the home side will follow.
Liverpool vs. Manchester United is always a big occasion, made more pertinent this term by the Reds' good start to the league campaign.
If they stop van Persie from finding the net at Anfield, Rodgers' team will go at least halfway to extending that run to three matches unbeaten at the start of 2013-14.