One of the best rivalries in European football is also one of the most important games of the season for the teams involved, as Manchester United host Liverpool with plenty hanging in the balance.
For Manchester United, the already incredible dim hopes they have of finishing in the top four would be completely extinguished with a loss in this contest. For Liverpool, their title hopes would become a lot harder to achieve without earning all three points (though the Reds will surely be thrilled if they finish in the top four).
All eyes in England will be on this match when it kicks off on Sunday. Let's break it down.
When: Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET
Sunday at 1:30 p.m. GMT
Where: Old Trafford, Manchester, England
Odds: Manchester United (41.3 percent), Liverpool (33.6 percent) and draw (25.1 percent), according to Bloomberg Sports
These teams met twice in September, with Liverpool winning at Anfield, 1-0, in a league showdown before United knocked them out of the Capital One Cup later that month at Old Trafford, also winning 1-0.
But boy, has a lot changed since September.
While Liverpool have flourished, United have never quite found their footing under new manager David Moyes. Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata have never quite found a way to coexist in the attacking third since the latter was added in January, while the midfield has remained an area of concern.
But the van Persie saga has become a bit absurd. After United's somewhat shocking 2-0 loss to Olympiakos in late February, van Persie complained to the media that players were occupying the places on the pitch where he wanted to play.
And this past weekend, he was taken out early in United's 3-0 win over West Brom, and the club appeared to play much better after he was removed, leaving open the possibility that perhaps the Red Devils would be better off without him in the lineup.
But van Persie has looked to end any claims that he isn't happy with the club. Here are some of his recent comments, via United's official Twitter account:
.@Persie_Official says: “I signed for four years and I’d be delighted to stay even longer. I’m happy with my team-mates and my manager.”— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 13, 2014
More from Robin: “Moyes’ sessions and the things he says in his team meetings are spot-on. I really enjoy working under him.”— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 13, 2014
RvP: “The truth is I’m very happy here… although it’s not what has been suggested in the media.” More: http://t.co/fFYnaCMwc1— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 13, 2014
Happy or not, its reasonable to question whether a pairing of Rooney and Danny Welbeck would be more effective than Rooney and van Persie. Or, perhaps even Rooney shifting to the No. 9 and having Mata settle into the No. 10 behind him would be more productive. United's attack has seemed to suffer at times from having too many cooks in the kitchen, so an adjustment might be in order.
Liverpool have had no such issues in the attack. They lead the Premier League in goals with 73, highlighted by the brilliant seasons put together thus far by Luis Suarez (24 goals, 10 assists) and Daniel Sturridge (18 goals, five assists).
So yes, there could be some goals in this game.
One interesting factor in this contest is that United aren't nearly as difficult to beat at home as they have been in years past, having already lost four league games at Old Trafford. Of course, Liverpool have four draws and four losses on the road in 14 away matches, so they aren't nearly as dangerous away from Anfield.
In many ways, this is a matchup of role reversals, as mighty United are the desperate team, not Liverpool. Richard Jolly of ESPN has more:
At the start of the season, it did not seem a rash prediction to suggest one would be second now and the other sixth. The surprise is that Liverpool are challenging for the championship and United are clinging to a Europa League place. Last season, the Liverpudlian Reds recorded only one league win against top-eight opposition; that unwanted mantle now belongs to their Mancunian counterparts
So perceptions have shifted quickly. With the possible exception of 2009, when Rafa Benitez had a core of world-class players but United a far deeper squad, it may be first the time in the Premier League era that a joint XI could feature more Liverpool players. On current form, [Jordan] Henderson and [Steven] Gerrard—both targets of [Sir Alex] Ferguson’s quill—would be certain starters in a composite side.
And so, after two decades of unflattering evaluations against the example United represented, Liverpool should savour the sight of the boot being transferred to the other foot.
Luckily, both clubs will be healthy for a match rife with subtext and historical import. Nani is back in training but probably won't play, while Javier Hernandez, Rafael and Jonny Evans could all return for United, according to Moyes, via Jolly. According to Sky Sports, only Jose Enrique is definitely out for Liverpool.
It's all hands on deck for both teams, then, in what looks like the most important game in this rivalry in quite a long time.
A Manchester United win would save their season. It would give them momentum down the stretch. It would restore Old Trafford's daunting nature for visiting sides, something that has disappeared this year. And it would, at least for a day, put the rival Reds back in their place.
A Liverpool win would signal a changing of the guard. It would keep the Reds firmly planted in the title race. And it would all but ensure their top-four finish, especially if Arsenal knock off Tottenham later in the day.
Which team wins?
Based on recent form, Liverpool should be the pick. They've been the better, more consistent side all season long, and the duo of Suarez and Sturridge is going to be difficult for United to deal with. Liverpool deserve to be the favorites to win this match.
But there is something to be said for desperation, and United are nothing if not desperate. They have the attackers to expose Liverpool's poor back line, they have as much incentive to win a match as you can possibly receive, and the fact that Liverpool aren't nearly as good on the road plays in their favor.
This is going to be one of the matches of the season. With their season on the line, United will prevail and keep the upper hand in this legendary rivalry, winning 3-2.