LONDON (AFP) – Manchester United and Liverpool will remind themselves what top billing in the Premier League feels like when they lock horns for the 191st time at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Chelsea and Manchester City seem destined to duke it out for this season’s title, but contests between United and Liverpool often serve to show why it is their rivalry that remains the most enduring in English football.
United’s run of five consecutive wins has seen them climb to third place in the table, eight points behind league leaders Chelsea and five points below defending champions City.
But although Liverpool are seven points back in ninth place, United manager Louis van Gaal is aware that his side’s recent momentum could collapse swiftly if they do not approach Sunday’s game correctly.
“I dream for Manchester City’s place or Chelsea’s place,” the Dutchman told MUTV.
“Now we have to live match for match and that is the most important thing. We have to beat Liverpool, which is more important than thinking about City or Chelsea.”
He added: “Of course I am aware of the rivalry. Even on the (pre-season) tour of the United States, all my staff were saying that to me.
“We have a cook whose name is Mike and when I don’t know about anything to do with United and rival clubs, he shall say it! He’s a big United fan and I hear immediately from him.”
Liverpool completed a home-and-away double on their last visit to Old Trafford in March, sweeping to a one-sided 3-0 win in which Steven Gerrard scored two penalties and saw a third come back off the post.
But it is United who are on the up now, with Monday’s slipshod 2-1 win at Southampton leaving them six points and six places better off than at this stage last season, when David Moyes was manager.
Liverpool are nine points and seven places worse off than they were this time last year, and go into the game having been eliminated from the Champions League following a 1-1 draw against Swiss champions Basel at a mournful Anfield on Tuesday.
“All you can do is affect what is happening inside your club and on the training ground and work even harder to turn it around,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers told his pre-match press conference.
“If we can do that, then of course the attitude changes. The only way you can do that is by winning games and performing well and that is our attitude to move forward for the rest of the season.”
The injury problems that have bedevilled United since the start of the season are finally clearing, with Angel di Maria, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling the only confirmed absentees for Sunday’s match.
Defenders Phil Jones and Rafael da Silva are both in contention to start after two months on the sidelines with, respectively, shin and groin problems. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, will be gunning for his fourth goal in four games after netting twice at Southampton.
Rodgers has also received good news on the injury front after Mario Balotelli returned to training.
The Italy striker has not played since November 8 due to a groin injury that he sustained on international duty.
Midfielder Adam Lallana is also expected to be named in the match-day squad despite having broken two ribs a week ago, while centre-back Kolo Toure could feature after missing the Basel game with a groin problem.
Former United captain Gary Neville joked that Sunday’s game would be akin to a pub league fixture after watching his old side edge Southampton despite mustering only three attempts on goal.
But with United scenting blood, Old Trafford sold out, and a guaranteed global television audience of millions, it promises to crackle with all the electricity of previous encounters.