As Manchester United travel to Anfield to take on hosts Liverpool FC, two rival fans engage in friendly banter.
Manchester United and Liverpool are embroiled in the standout fixture of the weekend. This match is not only big because of the rivalry that consumes the two sides, but as the two are targeting Champions League football next season and could determine who finishes in the top 4 at the end of the season. For many, this encounter is almost like a knock-out match, with the winner potentially being in Europe’s elite competition and the other not.
In this edition of Rival Rendezvous, two of our resident authors, Aakriti Mehrotra (hereafter referred to as AM), a Liverpool supporter and Dushyant Sinha (hereafter referred to as DS), a Manchester supporter, engage in a friendly banter and shoot a few questions at each other.
The Manchester United fan Dushyant takes the hot-seat first as Aakriti pits him her questions.
AM: If Manchester United’s performances have been somewhat underwhelming, they’ve still got results coming their way. And against Spurs, not only did an emphatic result come but there was also a superb performance to show for it. How important was the victory, especially with a match against an in-form Liverpool coming next?
DS: There is no doubt the win over Spurs was vital ahead of potentially the most crucial North-West derby in terms of league positions since March 2009. We had been getting the results, but not in a convincing manner that stamped our authority over the result. That changed against Spurs, and hopefully Van Gaal has found the system he needs to employ long term at Old Trafford.
AM: Michael Carrick has easily been United’s most influential player, for me at least. I think he is more key to the side than anyone barring Wayne Rooney. Do you think he could be the key man for United once again? Who else holds the key for the Red Devils?
DS: Carrick is definitely the glue that holds the team together. He is the player that keeps the play ticking for United – controlling the tempo of the game with his intelligence. He is the one midfielder who looks to play the ball forward whenever he can, instead of passing it sideways like many who have played in that position this season. As Paul Scholes said, you need to have the balls to play the forward, adventurous passes as a United playmaker. Carrick not only does that, he helps out in defence with his clever interceptions. He holds the key against Liverpool for sure, given the form Coutinho has been in. I feel Fellaini is another key player for United – if he performs at the same level he did against Spurs last weekend and Chelsea earlier in the season, I cannot see United losing. David de Gea and Wayne Rooney of course remain crucial to United’s plans.
AM: There are disgruntled players (apparently) in United’s dressing room in the form of Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria. What do United fans make of the situation? Falcao could well head home, or to Madrid, or wherever, next season but di Maria is expected to stay for a few seasons, especially given the money spent for him. Reports about him asking his agent to get him out of England must dishearten United fans?
DS: Both Falcao and Di Maria have found it hard to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. This is not an alien problem. We have seen players like Robert Pires, Robin van Persie and Juan Pablo Angel take a season to settle at their clubs before showing spectacular performances one after the other. I feel Falcao and Di Maria will both eventually come good, but it is a big risk splashing out the cash required to put faith in Falcao for the long term. I feel United fans would prefer seeing the back of Falcao as patience runs thin in football these days. Di Maria, on the other hand, has not had as bad a season as is made out to be. In a season being termed a failure, Di Maria has already got 3 goals and 10 assists, the second highest in the league. This, after having been unavailable for half the season, is not a bad start to a first Premier League season. Perhaps United fans expected the Di Maria of Real Madrid instantly, but I’m sure none would want to see the back of him. It will be a concern if reports are true that the Argentine wants to leave, but I think Van Gaal could persuade him to stay for at least one more season, if that’s the case.
AM: Juan Mata – also said to be unhappy at his playing time, or the lack of it, at the club – got his first start in a long while against Tottenham and he performed emphatically. Should he start against Liverpool or should van Gaal bring in di Maria? Moreno’s pace on that flank can force Mata to defend when ita s not really Mataa s natural game so do you think van Gaal should opt for a different set-up than the one he stumbled upon against Spurs?
DS: I don’t think Van Gaal should play Mata against Liverpool. I also do not think he should play Di Maria. To counter Liverpool’s two attacking midfielders in the 3-4-2-1 formation, Van Gaal must change the 4-1-4-1 against Spurs to a 4-2-3-1 on Sunday, with Daley Blind coming in to replace Juan Mata as Michael Carrick’s partner in a double pivot in midfield, as Luke Shaw takes Blind’s place at left back. Herrera, Fellaini and Young should play behind Rooney. The strategy for Van Gaal should be not to lose this game away from home as it would put the pressure back on Liverpool in the race for fourth. A win would be a bonus.
AM: Louis van Gaal had a lot of expectations on him after he took over, especially considering the summer spree. Would you describe his term so far as “successful”? If he fails to land the top 4 spot for the club, would his future at the club be in jeopardy considering there is not even a cup to compensate for it? Finally, what is your prediction for the match? Do you think it is a knock-out tie for the CL berths as people are making it to be (winning side to get it)?
DS: I think it has been a definite improvement over David Moyes’s reign where most players looked jaded and uninspired. Fellaini, the man who worked more with Moyes, has found his confidence under Van Gaal. True, Van Gaal hasn’t found the winning combination yet, but signs are that even if United do not qualify for the Champions League, there is a potential for a brilliant team for the future to be built. He is tactically astute and has that ability to set his team up well against the big boys a la Mourinho. Having said that, it would be a travesty not to qualify for the Champions League, mostly financially, but I don’t think he will face the axe even then unlike the unlucky Moyes. I think Sunday’s result would be a draw, as an emotional Steven Gerrard cancels out a United lead from the bench (full marks for specificity, none for optimism), in his last North-West derby. With eight games still to go, it surely doesn’t knock out the losing team from the race for fourth, but it does make their job a hell of a lot tougher.
It is now time for the visiting fan Dushyant to turn host as Aakriti takes the hot seat.
DS: Liverpool host United with fine momentum behind them with 6 consecutive wins. A big part of this has been the absence of Steven Gerrard, who only played substantially in one of these games. Give this is going to be the Liverpool legend’s final North-West derby, is Brendan Rodgers under pressure to play his skipper and risk losing the winning combination that has ensured Liverpool are challenging for the top-four again? Will the Kop want to see Gerrard start his last North-West derby as captain, given his recent good record against United? Surely Joe Allen has done enough to demand a starting berth.
AM: It would be unfair to say that Gerrard has been a big part of why Liverpool has won 6 games consecutively. Liverpool’s successful run started about one and a half months before that. However, having Gerrard out helped in the sense that the Reds got a bevy of results without the talismanic captain and Gerrard is unfortunately our go-to man, still, as illustrated in some games earlier this season. So the important thing is that his absence has led to the group finding its hero in the team, and not necessarily in an individual, despite Henderson and Coutinho playing beautifully recently. With this being Stevie’s last game against United and the fact that he has done well against the club too, there is no doubt BR will feel a little pressurized to play him. But him coming in for Allen would be unfair on the player who has done so well recently. The way I can see him start and do so without the fans cursing Rodgers would be for him to have Henderson play slightly up, and for Allen and Gerrard to sort of form a holding midfielder double pivot behind. Sterling should play as a false nine and Sturridge should come in the second half. However, ideally I wouldn’t want him to start the game and would prefer him to come in in the second half. I’m sure most rational Liverpool fans would want the same.
DS: In what was their best performance of the season against Spurs, the United trio of Fellaini, Young and Blind on the left absolutely hammered Kyle Walker, who had one of this worst games in a Spurs shirt at right-back. Right winger Andros Townsend was substituted because Walker clearly needed more support on the right from his winger. Is it a major concern that in Liverpool’s 3-4-2-1 formation, Emre Can as the right centre back is bound to have his hands full against Fellaini who won 90% of the aerial battles against Walker, considering that Can’s options for support at right wing-back are Sterling and Markovic, not much better at tracking back than Townsend was? Would a change in formation to counter Fellaini’s threat halt the progress they have made with the 3-4-2-1?
AM: This will be the vulnerable spot for Liverpool, in my opinion as well. Can doesn’t have a particularly good record in the aerial duel department and Fellaini is likely to cause him some trouble. I don’t think Rodgers will change the formation, but he might tinker with the players. We might see a surprise inclusion in Glen Johnson or Javier Manquillo on that flank. Rodgers could also bring Gerrard in the midfield and shift Henderson in that right wing-back role. I am not how good that idea is, but it will help the defence cope with United’s attacking threat for sure.
DS: Liverpool’s success with the 3-4-2-1 formation involves Raheem Sterling playing up-top and pressing defenders into making mistakes. However, the last time he was through on goal against United, he faced the terrific David de Gea. Would the young Liverpool striker be able to shake off the hoodoo of De Gea – the man he failed to beat in two one on ones in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford?
AM: That is true. However, you must understand that that was Sterling’s first game as a false nine for the Reds and his finishing was always questioned. Even now it is, but since that game he has improved a lot in the department. I dona t think Sturridge is quite back to his best and doesn’t look 100% yet. The fact that he can still make runs like he has been is testament to his ability and potential but I will prefer the team that started against Manchester City to start this game as well. This will mean Sterling starts up-top. As for his finishing, we Liverpool fans are only hoping he can settle his score with the fantastic de Gea and also prove why Liverpool should pay him 150k a week.
DS: Should Sterling and a not-so-sharp-yet Sturridge misfire, is it a concern that Mario Balotelli, who had a decent record against United at Manchester City, would be a hot potato to bring on, given that he is close to lunacy (https://instagram.com/p/0Vv4SCLj7q/?taken-by=mb459) and given that the North-West derby has seen the most red cards in the league after the Merseyside derby (It’s easy to figure out the common denominator in the two fixtures)? Would Rodgers be better off having Balotelli setting his garage on fire during the match instead of playing a part?
AM: Things haven’t exactly gone well for Mario on Merseyside and part of me really sympathizes with him. It was stupid on the management’s part to bring him in when Rickie Lambert was already in for that “Plan B” and both these players offer the same things. Despite scoring the winner against Spurs, setting up the winner against Palace and scoring against Besiktas, he has been ignored by Rodgers. So you definitely feel for the guy (There are so many “illnesses” involved with him as well which keep him out of the side). However, I am certain he is not going to play a part against United, and if he does come on as a substitute, he will have a big say on the matters. Despite all the awkward Instagram videos, I don’t think he will do something nasty in the game. I hope not.
DS: Ahead of this massive fixture, two of Liverpool’s most influential players this season are a concern with regards to their long term future. Sterling has rejected a 100,000 pounds per week contract and looks to be looking wistfully at the blue side of Manchester. Meanwhile, Jordan Henderson, while he hasn’t shown signs of leaving, surely must be pulling big clubs towards him who can offer him a better salary than the maximum he can earn at Anfield, which has a wage cap of 120,000 pounds per week (Gerrard’s being the exception). Would these two be as motivated on Sunday as they would have been had their long term futures been settled well in advance?
AM: I don’t think any of these players will be moving anywhere in the summer. Sterling himself has reiterated his desire to stay. The holdup in contracts is due to his agent Aidy Ward being in the process of splitting from Impact Sports Management and setting up a new agency. It is good that Sterling has himself asked for the talks to be delayed till the summer to concentrate on football as these talks will divert his focus and by then, things can be sorted out with his representatives as well. Liverpool need to keep hold of Sterling as he has the potential to not only be one of the best, but the best. However, it is understandable on the Reds’ part to not want to pay a 20 year old 150k a week since he is only a talent right now, albeit with world-class potential. As far as Henderson is concerned, Liverpool enjoy a good relationship with his agent Neil Fewings from Wasserman Media Group and the club is absolutely certain the player will stay. Talks of potential captaincy have complicated the extension. Both these players will stay, in all probability and I don’t think contract talks will have anything to do with them wanting to perform against United. There are far greater reasons to do so than that.