If Manchester United want to have any chance of finishing in the top four, they have to beat Liverpool on Sunday, while if Liverpool want to win the Premier League, they cannot really afford to drop many more points.
It’s a very different dynamic going into the game—usually it has been United playing for titles and Liverpool fighting for surrounding places, but this year it is the other way around.
United is probably the biggest game of the season for Liverpool—even bigger than the city derby against Everton.
United are their big, historical rivals and matches in recent years have almost always had an importance at the top of the Premier League.
When I was playing for Liverpool, we had a pretty good record at Old Trafford; We won there three times out of four from 2000 to 2004, although United always finished above us in the end. But, in the individual games against them, we already had a pretty good record.
Why did we tend to do well in games against United during that period? I think it was because the way they played always suited us; Man Utd at that time were never a team that could really play us off the park. They were obviously very organised and had some superb individual players, but they were not at the same level at that time as Arsenal, who could tear you apart if they were on song.
United never really did that.
If this Liverpool side want to win the league then I don’t think they can afford to drop too many points—but at the same time United want to win. It should be an exciting game.
As a player you relish these occasions, you always want to measure yourself against the best players and opponents. Old Trafford is not really an intimidating place if you go prepared, you’ve just really got to believe in yourself and your team-mates to go there and get a result.
The way Liverpool play at the moment, I don’t think they need to fear anything. United are going through a few problems but, then again, once the game kicks off, United will probably want to put in one of the best performances of the season because it is a massive game—and the fans will certainly remind them of that.
You always want to start well, I never really believed that the first tackle set the tone, or things like that, because the game is 90 minutes and ebbs and flows. There will be times when one team is on top and then the other team is on top and you have to react accordingly.
It comes down to not making mistakes; If the other team makes mistakes, you want to capitalise on that and punish them, whether it involves getting players sent off or scoring a goal.
The midfield battle is crucial, this is where these games are decided. But then up top, with the firepower that Liverpool have at the moment, I think United have to be on their toes to keep that front four quiet, because they can cause some real damage—as we’ve seen in the past.
Regardless of how badly United might be performing at the moment, however, they will be a different animal this week.
If Liverpool win, though, they will be 14 points above their rivals—with less than 10 games remaining, that will be a gap surely too big to overhaul. Finishing above Manchester United for the first time in over a decade (they last did it in 2001-02) will be a big thing for the club and the fans, but obviously first and foremost you want to finish as high as possible and qualify for the Champions League. It’s a bonus if you finish ahead of United.
Liverpool have given themselves a great chance to do that. But beating United again, and doing the double over them after winning 1-0 at Anfield at the start of the campaign, would be a real statement because you’ve got to look forward as well and set down standards for the future.
I think United need to get a fair few new players and make some changes, but at Liverpool everything seems to be moving in the right direction and they will want to carry on that good spirit, belief and momentum so they can continue to achieve bigger and better things.
If Liverpool want to win the league, they cannot afford to drop many more points; every game is a cup final for them now. But I think, also, for manager Brendan Rodgers it is a really significant game—he will find out how some of his players react to that different pressure on them now, where they are playing not just derby games, but derby games with title ambitions on the line.
If they are going to be in the Champions League, and face more of these sort of big ties in the coming seasons, then Rodgers will want to know which of his players relish that stage.