With only 10 weeks remaining in the year, Liverpool go to Old Trafford tomorrow knowing they have never had a better opportunity to finally complete Operation 20:19.
It is not only the absence of a league championship since 1990 that has been haunting the Merseyside giants in the Premier League era but also the hurt of losing their historic title of England’s most successful club — to their most bitter rivals.
The current statistics show United have won 20 titles to Liverpool’s 18 and even though the Red Devils are also enduring a title drought themselves, with nothing to celebrate since Alex Ferugson left in 2013, it’s a story that the Stretford End will take great joy in telling once again this weekend on derby day.
When Ferguson first arrived at Old Trafford on November 6, 1986, it was a different story. The Champion of Champions league table showed Liverpool on 16 league titles but United stuck on only seven and without a win since 1967. There was no argument about who was most successful in English football history in an era when Liverpool were in their pomp.
But Ferguson’s famous mission to knock Liverpool “off their perch” changed everything — including the dynamic of the North West derby and the global view of which club could be described as England’s biggest and most successful.
Now, you have to say, the pendulum is swinging. Although Liverpool’s record at Old Trafford is patchy (they haven’t won there in five years), the ‘direction of travel’ as they say in politics is very much towards a Liverpool revival and a United collapse. Jurgen Klopp’s side are shinning up the tree and their perch is once again in sight.
With champions Manchester City strangely inconsistent, Liverpool know this is their chance to end a painful drought that has exasperated the Kop for so long, just as Ferguson did for United’s long-suffering fans in 1993.
Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino understands the dynamic after four years at Anfield. “In the Premier League for us every game is a final, but we know for Manchester United it must be even more because being 15 points behind us must be tough.
“The game is important for morale for us, but not decisive for the title because there is a long way to go.
The aim is just to take the three points and play well. It’s a game that will be watched around the world so we want to show people this is the year for Liverpool. This is one of the biggest clubs in the world and the sooner we can close the gap and reach our 21st title the better.
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk, however, is urging everyone at Anfield to remain calm and think less about rivalry and more about the end goal. “It’s going well and to be top of the table is important. But let’s not get carried away,” he insisted.
“We have been getting the points but there’s always room for improvement and so we have to keep working. We should just focus on all the games ahead of us and not look at the gap or the difference between us and City. There are a lot of busy periods coming up in December and January and anything can happen.
“We know what the title means to our fans but let’s stay calm and just think about the games ahead and not about other people.”
Van Dijk also sought to put this weekend’s United game in perspective, suggesting the fixture no longer carries the same pressure and intensity of the past. Not because it doesn’t matter but because winning the title, for Liverpool, far outweighs local rivalry. “It’s a massive game, but it’s more massive for the fans,” he said. “I think all of the Champions League games are as big as this. The whole atmosphere and leading to the actual game is bigger than some other games but I don’t think it’s the biggest of the season.
“The big ones are the Champions League and the ones that are hopefully going to win us the Premier League title.”
That’s a statement which will sting United fans because, by contrast, their team’s statistics this season are painful to look at. A total of only 14 points from their past 15 games leaves United above only Southampton, Brighton and Watford in the form table and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s win ratio is now only 47.5 per cent.
No United manager has delivered a worse percentage since Dave Sexton in the 1970s — the days when Liverpool ruled supreme and United looked to the FA Cup for occasional glory.
Goalkeeper David de Gea, who fears he could miss the derby because of injury, gave a withering verdict on his team’s season after they lost at Newcastle last time out and his words should send a shiver down the spine of everyone at Old Trafford.
“The whole season isn’t acceptable for us,” he said. “We have injuries but it’s not an excuse. We are Manchester United. We need to train hard to keep fighting and to get back to winning games.”
With United so low, perhaps the focus at Old Trafford right now is more on beginning a revival than maintaining their historic 20-18 title lead over Liverpool. But it’s tough times for the Stretford End when they have to choose who they would rather the league — their noisy neighbours or their hated rivals from down the M62.
The way things are going there is every possibility of Liverpool catching their derby rival in the years ahead. This weekend will be a reminder of exactly how much that means to everyone.
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