Only serving to make a bad season even more miserable for United is the knowledge that their fiercest rivals are in with at least a fighting chance of landing their first title since 1990. When Alex Ferguson first fetched up at Old Trafford, he famously made it known that an essential part of the business to hand would be about “knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch”. Now the boot is on the other foot, even if Brendan Rodgers would never express himself in such colourful terms.
Of course, finding themselves in the ignominious position of being cast in the role of underdogs – and on their home turf to boot — could galvanise United tomorrow and help them produce the kind of performance which David Moyes keeps insisting is within their grasp. But whatever the outcome of this one game, the sense of the pendulum beginning to swing decisively back west along the M62 is hard to ignore.
Whether the shift in the balance of power will be long-lasting is another imponderable but the fear that barely dares to speak its name in Manchester is that, just like their arch-rivals after the sustained success of the 1970s and ’80s, United could be facing into a protracted title drought now that they’re no longer stuck together with Fergie’s glue.
Didi Hamann, who was at Liverpool during United’s domestic dominance, is well-placed to compare and contrast.
“Clubs are always in transition and it was always going to be a big change when the manager has been there for 30 years,” he said on a visit to Dublin this week.
“United have big decisions to make for next season. It will be vital because some of the players are coming towards the end of their careers and they have a lot of players who have under-performed this year, and also last year, some of them. It was really a miracle that they won the league by 11 points.
“I don’t want to say it’s the end of the empire but I don’t think United will be as dominant as they were in the last 10 or 20 years. But they will still play an important role in the Premier League and hopefully in Europe.”
Meantime, he’s not entirely convinced that the other red empire will rule supreme come May.
“Liverpool have a chance and I wouldn’t have said it at the start of the season,” he admitted. “Seven points off with a game in hand. I’d always said that if they finish in the top four they’ll have had a terrific season but now it’s more or less guaranteed as they have a cushion over Spurs and Man United and they can look upwards, not behind them. They play Chelsea and City at home so you have to give them a chance the way they score goals and dismantle teams. I still think the other two are more likely winners but with 10 or 11 games to go, you have to give them a chance.”
How much credit does he think Brendan Rodgers deserves?
“Huge. The manager gets the blame when things don’t go well so they deserve the credit when they do go well. I think he has done a very good job but there is a long way to go.”
Former Germany international Hamann is adamant that, despite the customary frenzied hype which will attend tomorrow’s game, the Premier League flirts with self-delusion when it comes to soberly assessing its own worth.
“I never said it was the best in the world,” he clarified, “I said it was the most exciting because it’s the best to watch, there’s the most flow in the game, the referees don’t give as many free-kicks, there’s hardly any diving even though there’s a few creeping in who dive — not all foreigners, some English as well. The most blatant one is English and playing for Man United.
“But it was obvious last year that the two best teams in Europe were German and the third and fourth best were Spanish. I think to say on the basis of what happens in the Champions League that one league is better than the other, I think it’s very hard. What you can say is that the English teams are some way off the top European teams at the moment.”
Not that such realism will impinge even one iota on proceedings at Old Trafford tomorrow when it’ll be all about domestic bragging rights as this latest renewal of one of the most intense rivalries in English football is set to tell us a lot more about title aspirations at Liverpool and the depth of the crisis at Manchester United.
It might not be the best game in the world, but you wouldn’t want to miss it for the world either.