Liverpool may still be waiting to win the Premier League but they put their latest title credentials on the line against Manchester United today with Roberto Firmino refusing to accept that there is only one championship contender on the field at Anfield.
It has been many, many years since this derby was a real title six-pointer and Liverpool’s shaky early-season form suggests it may be premature to suggest this weekend’s fixture breaks the mould, despite the endless hype which inevitably surrounds it.
However there is no doubting that the fixture has a huge psychological impact on the belief of both teams in terms of their own ambitions for the campaign.
United legend Gary Neville recently suggested that while a game at Anfield rarely decided the title during Alex Ferguson’s glory years there was nevertheless a feeling at Old Trafford that an away victory against their bitter rivals was the ultimate rubber stamp for a team’s ability to go on and become champions.
In fact United have won the championship 13 times in Premier League history and 10 of those titles came in seasons when they won or drew at Anfield (seven wins, three draws). Only in 2009, 2001, and 1996 did they lift the trophy despite losing away to their bitter rivals.
It’s little wonder that Liverpool say they will be pumped up today having won only one win in their last seven matches in all competitions — a run which has left critics doubting their chances of ending that 27-year wait.
“We know what this game means,” Firmino said. “A match against Manchester United is an El Classico in the UK. It is one of the most important matches of the season with an incredible atmosphere.
"You can feel what it means to the fans who live every moment of it. It is not easy for us on the pitch because United are playing very well and are a serious candidate for the title this year. But I keep saying that the season is long and nobody is left behind in the race yet.”
Liverpool’s opening to the season has been a strange mixture. A strong start which included a 4-0 victory over Arsenal and some encouraging results in Europe is somewhat counterbalanced by a 5-0 humbling at Man City, an EFL Cup defeat at Leicester and a run of only one victory in their last four Premier League games which has left them seventh, seven points behind leaders Manchester City.
There is an overall feeling that Jurgen Klopp’s men have taken their foot off the pedal. The pressing isn’t quite as intense, the energy levels not quite so high, the heavy metal music not quite so loud.
“We haven’t stopped believing,” insisted Firmino. “It’s true that Liverpool have had an inconsistent start to the season but it’s still possible to come back.
“Liverpool is required to fight for the title, we know that. That’s our challenge and as professional players we need to improve our game and move up the table. There’s no secret. We need to win our matches at home and to score more goals.
"That’s the key to victory and I still think it’s possible for us to be successful this season. Liverpool is not out of the title race.”
Maybe not — although many pundits will take a lot of convincing with memories of that humiliation at the Etihad still fresh in the mind — but it is hard to see Liverpool recovering quickly should they be given the same kind of lesson by United today.
Jose Mourinho’s side have taken a step up this season, no doubt about it; partly thanks to their work in the transfer market and partly thanks to their natural development under a manager who, love him or loathe him, is again proving that he is a winner.
So could a morale-boosting victory at Anfield prove that this latest United team has the hallmark of champions — just as it has done in the past?
“Let’s see,” said Juan Mata, who many thought would be jettisoned by Mourinho but who has become increasingly important in United’s revival.
“Right now United are having a sensational season but the squad all have their feet on the ground because we know the season is long. Winning the title is hard work but we have opened the season as a dream and we want that to continue.
“The Premier League is special and complicated. One little error can see a club miss out because every match feels like a final, especially this one. For me, right now, I can say Manchester United are able to win the title. But we have to keep working.”
Mourinho has always enjoyed the challenge of a trip to Anfield. The rivalry he inspired between Chelsea and Liverpool in his first spell, when the clubs were rivals both for the title and for the Champions League, is legendary. So it’s hard to imagine a limp performance from his United team this lunchtime.
“A match against Liverpool is always a hard and complicated one for us,” said Mata. “It is for any club of course but especially for us because Liverpool always seem to put on their best face against United. But we are prepared because we understand the rivalry of course.”
Even in an era in which noisy neighbours City have become title rivals — and most pundits and bookmakers make City and United the two favourites to lift the trophy this season — there’s still something extra about the ‘derby’ at Anfield, a fact which Mata recognises.
“It’s a traditional, historical rivalry,” he said.
“In the last years City has become a candidate for the title and three points against them can be decisive. Their fans live in the same city and this makes it more direct. But the flavour, the feeling, of the match against Liverpool is unique. To win there would mean a lot.”
Ultimately, as history proves, it could mean everything.
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