Saturday, March 14, 2009

Match Preview: Manchester United vs. LiverpooL

For Manchester United, a win this weekend would all but guarantee them a third consecutive Premier League crown. They already sit seven points and a game in hand ahead of Liverpool and Chelsea, so three points against their North West rivals would all but decide the title race.

Funnily enough, the Red Devils began 2009 as outsiders on the domestic scene. Their sojourn in Japan for the Club World Cup - and the stuttering form of Luiz Felipe Scolari's Blues - allowed the men from Merseyside to gallop clear at the tabletop at the turn of the year.

But a run of 11 straight league wins since Boxing Day has seen United reclaim their perch at the summit of the standings. They will hope to continue that trend when they host the Reds on Saturday lunchtime, and none more so than Scouse striker Wayne Rooney.

"I grew up an Everton fan, my whole family are Everton fans and I grew up hating Liverpool – and that hasn't changed," the former Goodison Park hero said on Thursday.

"I think coming to Old Trafford will be a difficult game for them. They know they need to win, they need the three points. I'm sure they will be up for it and we certainly will be too.

"It will certainly end Liverpool's chances if we win and that's why we're looking forward to it."

United come into the clash in high spirits and surrounded by talk of a 'Quintuple' after their Champions League triumph over Inter, but their upcoming opponents should take even more confidence from their midweek exploits.

You wouldn't have known Liverpool were struggling for form if you watched their demolition of Real Madrid on Tuesday evening.

Having grabbed a 1-0 win in the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu thanks to an air-tight defensive display, the Mersey giants then proceeded to put four unanswered goals past a helpless Iker Casillas in the return fixture, thus booking their sport in the quarter-finals.

However, as is so often the case with Rafael Benitez's side, their European efforts are in no way reflective of their domestic situation. For example, the impressive victory in Spain two weeks ago was followed up immediately by a disastrous 2-0 defeat at Middlesbrough. Many would would tipping a similarly sluggish showing at Old Trafford this weekend.

Liverpool haven't fared especially well in their arch-rivals' den over the past few years; in fact, the last time they returned with three points in league play was in 2004, when Danny Murphy was the hero. However, they are yet to lose against a Big Four opponent this term, and they will hope to replicate their 2-1 victory over Sir Alex Ferguson's champions at Anfield earlier in the campaign.

The Reds, who have won just three league games since their 5-1 mauling of Newcastle United at the end of December, are well aware that defeat against United would end their title chase once and for all. And Martin Skrtel has assured the Kopites that they will be going all-out for the win.

The Slovakian centre-half, who starred against Los Blancos, said recently, "Any result other than a win would mean a definite end to our title hopes.

"Despite the point difference, we are going into the match with the goal of winning. We will see if we can do it but, one thing is for sure, we are in a good mood after beating Real."

And as United would draw level with Liverpool on 18 English championships should they win this season, there is no lack of motivation for Benitez's boys.


Manchester United

Mar 11 Man United 2-0 Inter (Champions League)
Mar 07 Fulham 0-4 Man United (FA Cup)
Mar 04 Newcastle 1-2 Man United (Premier League)
Mar 01 Man United *0-0 Tottenham (Carling Cup)
Feb 24 Inter 0-0 Man United (Champions League)


Mar 10 Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid (Champions League)
Mar 03 Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland (Premier League)
Feb 28 Middlesbrough 2-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 25 Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)
Feb 22 Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City (Premier League)


Manchester United

Ferguson's defence remains light on personnel, with Gary Neville, Wes Brown and Rafael da Silva all sidelined, but Rio Ferdinand is expected to start after coming through Wednesday's win over the Nerazzurri unscathed. The very capable Jonny Evans will be on stand-by.

Rooney is likely to partner Dimitar Berbatov in attack, although Carlos Tevez - who scored at Anfield in October - may well feature in some capacity.

Possible XI: Van der Sar - O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra - Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs - Berbatov, Rooney


Albert Riera should return to the starting lineup after missing the midweek mauling of Madrid through suspension. Ryan Babel will most probably make way, despite a bright showing against the Merengues.

Danish defender Daniel Agger is still hampered by a back problem, but Yossi Benayoun - who hasn't played since scoring at the Bernabeu last month - is a chance to make the squad as he recovers from a hamstring problem.

Possible XI: Reina - Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio - Mascherano, Alonso - Kuyt, Gerrard, Riera - Torres


Manchester United

After his controversial comments during the week, all eyes will be on Wayne Rooney as he attempts to kill off Liverpool's title hopes. The 23-year-old is perhaps not in the finest form of his career, but everyone knows what the former Evertonian is capable of.


At the other end of the park, Fernando Torres will be aiming to notch up his first strike against Man United. The ex-Atletico Madrid star has already shrugged one monkey off his back this week by netting against his old crosstown rivals, and he'll be the man the Reds look to as they attempt to re-enter the title race on Saturday.

Steven Gerrard: Liverpool Can Still Beat Manchester United To Premier League Title

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard insists the club will not rule out the possibility of winning the Premier League trophy this season until it is impossible to do so.

The Reds face the tough task of Manchester United away on Saturday evening. Although many might find it a daunting prospect, the England international views it as a chance to close the gap at the top of the table.

"United is a difficult place to go because they are a strong team with good players," Gerrard told the club's official website.

"This time around the game is bigger than it has been for a few years. If we can take maximum points off them then it will give us a better hope of getting back in the [title] race. There is everything to play for.

"We have to be confident. What's the point going into a game thinking you are only going to get a draw or a defeat? It's important we are positive.

"We have beaten them at Anfield this season and, although it's at their place this weekend, it's still a football pitch. We know if we play to our maximum potential then we can cause an upset."

When asked whether the Reds can still win the league, the 28-year-old replied, "There's still enough time for us because there are quite a few games left to play.

"While it's still possible myself and the players will continue to fight, there's no two ways about it. We won't give up until we can't do it.

"Manchester United have still got some tricky games, including against us. If we were to win every game and United don't slip up, then obviously there's nothing else we can do.

"We just have to make sure we stay on their tails and try to make the gap smaller. If they do make any mistakes, that's when we have to try to pounce."

Dutch Duo Vow To Deliver For Liverpool FC Against Man Utd

The build up to Liverpool’s annual visit to Old Trafford would not be the same without a steady stream of Liverpool players stating their belief that they can win at the home of one of their biggest rivals.

Last season, such brave words were made to look incredibly hollow as Liverpool slumped to a 3-0 defeat on an afternoon to forget for everyone associated with the Anfield club.

This time around though, hopes are high that deeds can match words – particularly after Tuesday night’s super show against Real Madrid.

Dutch duo Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt know just what a tall order it is to come up with any kind of victory against Manchester United, never mind an away win but they also believe should Liverpool hit the same heady heights they reached in their demolition of Madrid then they will give themselves an excellent chance of getting the result they crave.

“They are beatable”, insists Babel, who scored the winner when the two sides met at Anfield earlier this season.

“If we concentrate and play to our level then there is no reason why we can't beat Manchester United for a second time this season.

“It’s a game we have to win in terms of the title race. If we do that then hopefully our title chances will look different.

“After beating Real we will take a lot of confidence into the game.”

Critics will justifiably point to the fact that the last time Liverpool beat Real they followed it up with a shambolic display at Middlesbrough and the accompanying defeat put a massive dent in their hopes of winning the Premier League.

Two weeks on from that bleak day in the North East, Kuyt is hopeful that things will be different even though Alex Ferguson’s league leaders will be desperate to finish off their title dreams for another season.

He said: “We are very satisfied at making it through to the next round of the Champions League but it is also a very timely boost for our next game in the Premier League.

“If we can beat Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield then at the very least we should have a chance on Saturday but we know it will be tough because Man United are a very good team who are challenging for a number of trophies.

“The first thing we have to do is to enjoy the win against Madrid, take the good things from that game and then we have to look ahead to the next match and try to get another good result.

“The confidence in the team is high at the moment as you would expect after such a good result in the Champions League.

“Everyone is talking about Madrid playing really badly but the win is also a great credit to our team because we worked really hard from the very start of the game and we deserved the result.”

As well as the afterglow of their midweek Champions League heroics, Kuyt is also looking back to events earlier in the campaign for inspiration.

Foremost in his mind are the results Liverpool have already earned against their fellow big four members, with the victory over United at Anfield being a particular cause for hope.

“In the last couple of seasons we haven’t done too well at Old Trafford so it is obviously time that we changed this,” he said.

“I think we have shown this season that whenever we have come up against big opponents we have managed to compete with them and have come up with some very good results.

“We managed to beat United at Anfield, we have beaten Chelsea at home and away and we have also managed to get a draw at Arsenal so hopefully we can do the same at Old Trafford.

“We know that a win is what we need and we also know that it will be very difficult to get the result that we are looking for but we will definitely be giving it a try.

The fact that United are yet to taste defeat at home this season shows what a tall order it is to win at Old Trafford and Kuyt acknowledges that the squad Alex Ferguson has put together has the kind of quality needed to challenge on all fronts.

The 28-year-old reluctantly admits that United could win a quintet of trophies this season but also believes that they could yet be derailed. He said: “They definitely have the quality but there is still a long way to go for them and a lot of games still to be played.

“If you look at the race for the title then obviously they have got a lot of points already and they have a good lead at the top of the table.

“This means that it will be difficult for ourselves and for Chelsea to catch them but it is football and you never know what might happen so you have to be prepared to fight to the death.

“Hopefully we can beat them and after that we will see how it is going.”

Asked which United players Liverpool need to be pay particular attention to, Kuyt issues an emphatic response – “all eleven!”

“But our job is to prepare for them in the time we have before the game and to make sure that we give everything to get the result that we are looking for.

“Another win would be great and if we are able to get that then we will see where we are afterwards.”

The belief is there, now Liverpool must go to Old Trafford and live up to their brave words.

Should they do so then their title dreams will not be extinguished and they could even be reignited.

Guus Hiddink Wants Liverpool Victory At Manchester United

Guus Hiddink has admitted to taking a highly partial stance when it comes to today's eagerly awaited Premier League heavyweight battle between Manchester United and Liverpool.

The Chelsea manager has revealed that he will be keeping a close eye on proceedings at Old Trafford, and that he is hoping for a victory for Liverpool that will provide a huge boost to his own team's lingering hopes of claiming the league title.

His Chelsea side face Manchester City at home on Sunday, aware that even with a hundred per cent league record under the Dutchman of three wins in three outings, they are still seven points behind United. Hiddink feels that the Blues will have to win every single remaining league match if they are to have any chance of catching Sir Alex Ferguson's Red Devils.

"Our first concern is our game of course against Manchester City," Hiddink told The Daily Telegraph.

"We have the possibility to watch. It will be a beautiful clash to watch and if Liverpool can do some harm then great because it will make for a more exciting end to the season. But United look very determined and if they win then they can do the same to Liverpool.

"When I said we could win the league we were on schedule at that time but United have not made any mistakes since and neither are we. Until it is impossible, then we will fight."

As for Didier Drogba, who has made something of a return to form since Hiddink's arrival at the club, the Dutchman refused to be drawn on what was different with the player, and also asserted that he had found no trace of the rumoured 'cliques' at the club.

"I don't know what is different," he said of Drogba.

"I only saw him in the World Cup, and after, not so much in person, but he is very committed for the team, he has responded very well to the team and contributes very well in the team.

"I didn't find any isolated group of players within the team. It's easy when you have won games to say as a manager that it has improved but I have not seen what happened before. It is more interesting to see the reaction when things have not gone well in one or two games than it is when you have won a few."

Martin O'Neill Suggests Gareth Barry May Yet Leave Aston Villa

The Villans boss has revealed the England midfielder might be allowed to leave if they fail to qualify for the Champions League this season.

Aston Villa midfielder Gareth Barry was strongly linked with a move to Liverpool last summer before the Reds eventually opted to sign Robbie Keane from Tottenham Hotspur.

It is thought that Rafael Benitez was extremely keen to take the England international to Anfield and the Merseyside-based outfit were reported to have made several offers to acquire his services.

However, reluctant to sell him, the Villans allegedly demanded as much as £18 million for the 28-year-old; a valuation that Liverpool were apparently unwilling to meet.

Whatever the actual ins and outs may have been, Barry remained at Villa Park while Republic of Ireland international forward Keane joined Benitez's squad for around £19m.

Subsequently, Barry has helped Aston Villa move into a Champions League qualifying position this season while Keane returned to Spurs in January following an unsuccessful spell with the Reds.

Villa manager Martin O'Neill has revealed that he would not stop Barry joining Liverpool this summer should they fail to secure a place in Europe's elite competition.

"Gareth has spent 10 years here," O'Neill is quoted as saying in The Daily Mirror.

"If we don't make the top four no-one could begrudge him a move. What happened to Keane isn't a marker for everyone."

Rant Did Not Cost Us Title, Says Rafael Benitez

Rafael Benítez pointed yesterday to the strength and depth of Manchester United’s squad, not his infamous rant at Sir Alex Ferguson, as the reason for Liverpool being leapfrogged at the top of the Barclays Premier League, but the manager is confident he can catch and overhaul the champions should he stay at Anfield.

Despite claiming in his press briefing yesterday that there was “no deadline” surrounding his contract talks, Benítez told Spanish media a day earlier that he has to “decide on my future in the next two weeks”.

However, as he prepared to take his team to Old Trafford this lunchtime for the biggest game of the season, the manager appeared to be looking to the longer term.

Benítez is prepared to concede the title if he does not secure his 100th win as Liverpool manager by beating United, who are seven points clear at the top and have a game in hand, but the Spaniard insinuated that he would not be discussing a new deal if he did not believe he could topple Ferguson’s team as the pre-eminent force in English football.

“If everybody is together and we can improve on and off the pitch — the team selection, commercially, everything, I think we can be closer [to United],” Benítez, who has 15 months to run on his contract, said. “This year has been better than before and we have been closer [to them]. You’ve been talking about the draws we’ve had [at Anfield], but if we’d scored just one or two goals more we could have four more points and would be closer still, so I think we can do it [overhaul United at the top], but we need to be more consistent.”

Benítez’s attack on Ferguson on the eve of his team’s goalless draw away to Stoke City in January, when he accused the United manager of wielding an unfair influence over referees, has been widely cited as one of the main reasons for Liverpool’s collapse. Boasting a ten-point advantage over United on December 28, albeit having played three games more, Liverpool have taken only 13 points from the 24 available after the Spaniard’s outburst at his counterpart at Old Trafford.

But the Liverpool manager was dismissive yesterday of suggestions that his remarks have contributed to his team’s poor domestic form, which has included draws against Stoke, Wigan Athletic and Manchester City and a defeat by Middlesbrough. “I do not regret saying anything and it did not have any effect on results,” Benítez said. “It had no influence on them winning their games in hand. It was the right time to say what I said. I do not believe my remarks — facts, not comments — have had any effect on the title race.

“I was reading some articles from different journalists about the size of the United squad and that for me is the main difference. There is a massive difference in terms of the two clubs and their squads.”

Although Benítez was adamant yesterday that United will go out in search of victory today, the onus is on Liverpool to attack, given that a draw would only play into their opponents’ hands.

Asked to explain why Liverpool could humiliate a team such as Real Madrid 4-0 in Europe at Anfield but only draw at home to sides such as Stoke, Fulham and Hull City in the league, Benítez suggested that his players had more difficulty breaking down opponents who “get ten men behind the ball”.

That is unlikely to be a problem Liverpool will face against United, however, and Benítez is hopeful that his players can replicate Tuesday’s performance against Real at Old Trafford today, even though they have struggled to rise to the occasion in past seasons. “Clearly we will try to play at the same level as we did against Madrid,” he said. “We will try to play with intensity and determination. We have to win if we want to reduce the gap.”

Wayne Rooney Warned To Expect Stick At Liverpool After 'Hate' Comment

Sir Alex Ferguson warned Wayne Rooney he will be Liverpool's Public Enemy No. 1 after admitting he" hated" Manchester United's title rivals.

Boss Fergie has told Rooney to expect fierce provocation and taunts from the Kop fans in the lunchtime kick-off at Old Trafford, which has been billed as the Premier League decider.

Ferguson admitted:" Wayne takes a lot of stick, he always does. But he's maturing. Wayne has had plenty of stick over the years playing against Liverpool, which is understandable given his loyalty to Everton as a kid and the fact he played for them.

“Now he's at United he wants us to win.

“So I don't think what he said was anything out of the ordinary. Everyone uses the word 'hate' - it's easy to say I 'hate' this or I 'hate' that.

It doesn't mean a lot. As revealed by Mirror Sport yesterday, United tried to silence Rooney by removing his remarks from their official website, fearing they could incite trouble. Despite that move, Fergie has still told Rooney to expect relentless abuse.

Reds Duo In Oranje Squad

Liverpool duo Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel have been called up to Holland's squad ahead of the resumption of their World Cup qualification campaign later this month.

The Reds pair are among five players from the Premier League to be named in Bert van Marwijk's 25-man provosional squad with Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Nigel de Jong (Manchester City) and Andre Ooijer (Blackburn) also included.

Celtic striker Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was also named and could come up against some of his club team-mates with Oranje hosting Scotland in Amsterdam on March 28.

They will then welcome Macedonia to the Dutch capital three days later as they look to build on their five-point gap at the top of Group Nine.

Mascherano Give Refs Silent Treatment

Javier Mascherano has vowed to keep his head at Old Trafford later today – because he dreads doing anything to spoil Liverpool’s chances of reviving their title hopes by beating Manchester United.

The midfielder, appointed captain of Argentina by legendary boss Diego Maradona earlier this season, admitted he let Liverpool down when he was sent off in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago.

It came just weeks after boss Rafa Benitez finally landed his man in an £18.6m permanent deal, a year after ending his unhappy spell at West Ham by taking him on loan.

Liverpool went into that match on a high after completing a Champions League double over Inter Milan.

But with Liverpool trailing to a Wes Brown goal, Mascherano was booked by referee Steve Bennett just before half-time for chopping down Paul Scholes.

Then he was shown a second yellow for dissent and sent off – and United went on to win 3-0.

Mascherano claimed that all he had done was ask Bennett why he had booked Fernando Torres.

But the way in which he repeatedly demanded an explanation from the official left him in hot water.

Mascherano said: “I made a mistake last season and it was a very sad day for me.

“But I have learned the lessons and I know that it will not happen again.

“Now I am just trying to play for my team and I try not to talk any more with the referees.”

Tomorrow’s referee Alan Wiley can expect Mascherano to keep quiet.

But the midfielder was in ­trouble at Anfield on Tuesday when he was booked by Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere for kicking the ball away during the 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Replays showed that Mascherano kicked the ball as the official was blowing his whistle, not afterwards.

But the Argentinian is now banned for the first leg of the quarter-finals.

Mascherano said: “He told me I kicked the ball away, but I thought that I kicked the ball and then the whistle went.

“But we are happy because we played really well.

“It is not easy to beat a team like Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League, especially not with a result like this.

“We are happy, but we know that it will be a difficult game on Saturday.

“We have to see if we can play the same way as we did against Real Madrid and then we will see what happens.”

Why Can't Liverpool FC Always Play Like They Did Against Madrid

It was the performance that set Anfield alight, made Europe sit up and take notice and earned Rafael Benitez the respect he craves for his Champions League achievements.

But it also begged the question: why on earth can’t Liverpool play like that every week?

Such was the paradox of Tuesday’s comprehensive dismantling of Real Madrid, a night to stand alongside the other great European occasions at the famous stadium.

“We played against a top side and Real Madrid are historically a team that is always attacking,” explains Benitez.

“We started the game really well, we were attacking and scored two goals so everything changed for Madrid, they needed to attack and we had more space.

“I think they were expecting us to play deep and on the counter-attack, so we changed the plan they were expecting, scored an early goal and were on top of them from the beginning.

“We’ve done the same against a lot of teams but the difference is they usually have 10 men behind the ball rather than being an offensive team trying to defend.”

And therein lies the problem for Liverpool. Bring on an attack-minded team, and they are far more likely to be picked off than the succession of obdurate opponents that have stifled Benitez’s men at Anfield this season.

It’s the reason Liverpool head to Old Trafford this afternoon seven points behind Manchester United in the knowledge that anything other than a first victory at the stadium under the Spaniard’s tenure will effectively extinguish their faint championship hopes.

United and Liverpool are the only two teams in the top-flight yet to be beaten at home this campaign.

But while the champions have dropped just two points on their own patch, Benitez’s men have let slip a damaging 12 points with home draws against Stoke City, Fulham, West Ham United, Hull City, Everton and Manchester City.

“It’s not the same when you play against a team who use 10 players behind the ball,” continues the Anfield manager.

“We’ve known for a while that teams do this against us so it’s not frustration – it’s just something we have to analyse. You have to score first against teams and the game will change.

“Don’t forget, Real Madrid started with a lot of attacking players, they are not compact and organised, they are always thinking about going forward so maybe we could win a lot of second balls.

“In the other games, when teams come to defend there are a lot of people around the ball and that makes it more difficult to find space.

“The question is how can we penetrate it? You have to be very precise. It’s not just a question of determination and high tempo, like we had against Real Madrid.

“You can keep your high tempo if you can keep your space and pass the ball. If you don’t have the space you have to make sure you don’t give the ball away. It’s not the same situation.

“We've done well against a lot of teams here at Anfield and for me the first goal makes all the difference. Against Sunderland as soon as we scored the first goal the game was open. Against Bolton we scored three goals.

“Do we need better players? We need to take our chances. And we have to create more chances.”

Of course, United are highly unlikely to park the bus in front of goal this afternoon as they aim to issue the last rites on Liverpool’s title aspirations.

It would be unfair to judge the long-term ambition of any Anfield revival on the outcome of this single encounter.

After all, Benitez has long bemoaned the gap in terms of finances and squad strength between Liverpool and United.

But the Spaniard refuses to accept the Old Trafford side cannot be overhauled – although he admits it will take a near-perfect effort from everyone at Anfield to achieve that feat.

“If we can do everything well, if everybody is together and we can improve on and off the pitch – the team selection, commercially, everything – I think we can be closer to United,” says Benitez.

“This year has been better than before, we have been closer. People have been talking about draws but just one or two goals and it could be four more points and we would be closer so I think we can do it but we need to be more consistent.

“This year we were very close to the top of the table for a long time and it depends on this game where we’ll be position wise.

“It has been really good, we made some mistakes but if we don’t make them in the future we will be closer. I think that the motivation will be different for everyone.

“We were doing well but if we’d had won those games we drew we would have been in a better position and maybe playing better at home. Everything is a struggle.

“Clearly we were in a better position than before, clearly we couldn’t be consistent so to be closer than other seasons and not be consistent is a pity.

“We have to fight for the rest of the season and if we can stay at the same position next season try to be consistent.”

Liverpool have won only six of their last 15 league games, but enter the supposed Theatre of Dreams buoyed by their midweek Champions League exploits.

And Benitez says: “We had confidence before the Real Madrid win, now the mood is even better, everyone is looking forward to the match.

“I do not believe United are untouchable, as has been suggested, clearly I believe we can win.

“If we can start with the same high tempo as we did against Real Madrid, and keep possession as well as we did, then we can win the game.”

Whether Liverpool can do it against everybody else, though, could determine how long the 19-year wait for a title goes on.

The Real Reason Liverpool Are Brilliant In The Champion League? Steven Gerrard Is A Vampire

After Liverpool’s impressive midweek demolition of a not at all impressive Real Madrid, talk is once again centering on whether Rafa Benitez’s prefers the Champions League to the day-to-day slog of the Premier League.

This talk will only get louder if Liverpool lose to Manchester United when the two teams meet at Old Trafford tomorrow lunchtime, which they probably will.

But I think I’ve figured out what the Merseysiders’ problem is, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they prefer playing in Europe than they do in Middlesborough.

It is this: they are vampires.

Think about it, it’s obvious. In daylight Liverpool are useless. They are weak and powerless, able to be outfought and outfoxed by teams such as Stoke City.

Place them under cover of darkness, though, and the team become invincible, devouring Spanish legends and Italian giants as if they were pale-skinned virgins.

It’s a surprise that at the end of the match the players don’t drive away in Aston Martins and Porsches but instead turn into bats and fly back to Cheshire.

A piece of advice for Liverpool’s next Champions League opponents. Don’t bother with scouting reports or team formations, instead stock up on wooden stakes and cloves of garlic.

If all this fails, the team in red – is it dye or is it blood? – will once more win club football’s grandest trophy in Rome on the 27th of May.

But look closely as Steven Gerrard kisses the cup.

You will not see a reflection staring back at him.

Red Regret

After almost 20 years of longing, two decades of expectation ending in premature disappointment, this was supposed to be the season that a league trophy filled an increasingly dusty spot in an Anfield cabinet, but things do not always go as planned.

Before hysteria breaks out, it is noted that Tuesday's stunning UEFA Champions League destruction of Real Madrid was a phenomenal achievement and gives an indication that all is well, while also acting as a massive boost for expectation and confidence among players and supporters. However, the focus here is on league form and the midweek European win only makes struggles in the Premier League all the more bemusing as Liverpool persist in trailing Manchester United on and off the field.

Oasis' Noel Gallagher is famously a staunch Manchester City follower, while U2's Bono and The Edge were seen strolling across the Stamford Bridge turf after the first leg of Chelsea's UEFA Champions League last-16 victory over Juventus, indicating musicians have time for football when off duty.

That pattern undoubtedly works in the opposite direction and come May, if not before, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez's iPod may well be filled with the sentiments of Gallagher, Paul Hewson and David Evans (Bono and The Edge), who have asked the question, 'where did it all go wrong?'.

On 28th December, Liverpool, usually more reliable than an advent calendar for identifying when it is the festive period as a role of title race also-rans tends to have been accepted, travelled to Newcastle and dismantled their St James' Park hosts 5-1 to open a three-point margin at the top of the table - 10 ahead of United, having played three games more - and deliver a signal of intent that a league silverware drought, which has stretched since 1990, was about to end.

But Saturday lunchtime's trip to United - which can be seen live on Sky Sports 1 & HD1, and had appeared set to prove a possible title decider - has now morphed into what realistically seems just another opportunity to renew a fierce North-West rivalry as the defending champions hold a seven-point lead over their Merseyside foes and also enjoy the luxury of a game in hand, against Portsmouth on 22nd April.

There have also been whispers that, if league form slips further, third place and automatic qualification for the Champions League is not guaranteed. In 1996/97 Liverpool made it all the way to 'squeaky bum time' - a Sir Alex Ferguson phrase which, despite creating thoughts of the morning after the previous night's mutton vindaloo, perfectly sums up the climax of the season - before falling away from the pace to finish fourth. If Guus Hiddink continues to rejuvenate Chelsea, and Aston Villa get their act together, there could be a repeat performance.

This was supposed to be, and looked ready to be, the year for Liverpool and, regardless of victory over Real, it cannot be argued that there has been a collapse similar to an England batting order at Sabina Park, a 17-point swing, in form. Responsibility has to fall somewhere. Benitez has played a part and the Spaniard's notorious outburst at United boss Ferguson in the build-up to a fixture at Stoke following the victory on Tyneside was the turning point.

Even if there are other factors responsible for the title, barring an extraordinarily dramatic finish, returning to Old Trafford, Benitez's scripted explosion in the direction of his counterpart - a master in mind games who barely needed to flex grey matter, which had been so severely tested in the past against the likes of Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, when offering a sly, gentle jab about Liverpool's ability to handle pressure - generated negative publicity and was, for a seasoned manager, ill advised and badly timed as a victory proved out of reach in the next three league matches.

Unconstructive off-field headlines, such as the 'Rafa rant', have been a plague and have distracted from the most important area, on the pitch. Conjecture that Benitez is ready to swap Merseyside for a return home to Madrid has refused to go away, with the 48-year-old - who is out of contract in the summer of 2010, and has set a two-week deadline for a fresh agreement - reportedly turning down a number of drafted, four-year extensions as he haggles for greater influence over transfer policy and recruitment plans of the club's academy. Control on a par with the likes of Ferguson and Arsenal's Wenger would have a positive impact, but - no matter what the claims of the Liverpool squad regarding consistent focus amidst turmoil - managerial squabbles with Texas-based co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who themselves suffer a fractious partnership, have been destabilising.

Add to this the news that chief executive Rick Parry's 12-year career with the club is to end in May as rumour suggests his working relationship with Benitez and Hicks has become untenable, the arrest of captain Steven Gerrard following an incident in Southport when the midfielder was celebrating the victory over Newcastle, and persistent on-off stories regarding the club's ownership - a Kuwaiti investment consortium headed by the Al-Kharafi family have held a season-long interest and could agree a third-party stake - and focus again drifts away from sticking the ball in the onion bag.

A fresh face in the boardroom is required in order to offer the finances to compete with United, Chelsea, Arsenal and the emerging Manchester City. A new 73,000-seater stadium in Stanley Park - a source of increased revenue for which designs and planning permission are agreed - has been put on hold as Hicks, who is understood to be keen to stay, but with a new partner, and Gillett search for a buyer before a July deadline. Loans from RBS and American bank Wachovia, which were used to buy Liverpool in February 2007, have increased to a debt of £350million and are due for renegotiation in four months' time, offering potential interested parties the opportunity to play chicken before tabling a cut-price summer offer, possibly a fee in the region of £400m rather than a speculated £500m asking price.

Behind-the-scenes issues, therefore, have played a part in a fall away from the summit but, of course, league points are not solely won and lost as negotiating candles are burnt at either end. Since the turn of the year, Liverpool have struggled horribly on the pitch. FA Cup elimination to neighbours Everton came at a time when top spot was surrendered to United as 2009 league form reads; three wins, four draws and one defeat.

Draws have been a problem as a total of 10 have been recorded, including infamous home shares of the spoils with Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull City, indicating a lack of a cutting edge, an inability to pick locks and a failure to kill teams off. Victory over Real will have reverberated around the world and emphasised that Benitez has few superiors in Europe, and another continental success is a possibility. But that makes league struggles all the more head scratching. As if a gambler who thrives on the Black Jack tables of Monte Carlo but then draws a blank on Scarborough's slot machines, the former Valencia chief appears to run out of ideas when domestic opponents park the bus in front of goal.

That lack of potency has owed a lot to the persistent injuries of star striker Fernando Torres. Any club would struggle with the loss of their main goal threat, and that makes the decision to sell Robbie Keane back to Tottenham Hotspur a little over six months after prising the Republic of Ireland international from White Hart Lane for a figure in the region of £20m all the more debatable.

Keane flopped at Anfield, struggling with the weight of expectancy as he frustratingly spent most of his time running around like a headless chicken or on the bench, and his presence was acting as a diversion. Benitez deserves credit for acknowledging that fact and for showing the self-deprecation to move the player on when it would publicly damage his managerial status. But Liverpool have suffered an established difficulty in turning dominance into goals and since the winter transfer window that has been highlighted when the tactical options have been a mixture Dirk Kuyt, rookies David Ngog and Nabil El Zhar, or the lacking-in-confidence Ryan Babel. A genuine replacement was needed before Keane was allowed to leave.

Benitez has often been castigated for his persistence to shuffle his pack, showing a stubbornness which all great managers possess as he attempts to replicate the model at Valencia which brought two Primera Liga titles to the Mestalla. With persistently strong finishes after slow starts, the benefits of the system are evident. But this season, talk about a rock and a hard place, he has maintained a far more settled team as core individuals have been used on a regular basis, at times being played out of position, and, after a bright opening, that has led to tiredness. Comeback victories, against United, Manchester City and Wigan, were a trademark in late summer and autumn, but a fatigued defeat at Middlesbrough at the end of February was in contrasting difference.

Liverpool's league problems, though, are not entirely self-imposed. Their history is undeniable but, as much as it may hurt the occupants of Anfield Road, in the modern era they are not on the same level as United in terms of global notoriety, experience or finance. The above brings the ability to attract the better players - when United paid £18m for Anderson in 2007, Liverpool were splashing a third of that fee on Lucas Leiva - and that develops strength in depth to leave the rest playing catch-up.

A club of the gigantic size of Liverpool will not be happy with the underdog tag, but they appear to revel when the odds are stacked against - see recent European exploits, especially the 2005 Champions League final - while expectancy and pressure seems to be followed by a choke and a need to do things the hard way - see the 2001 Uefa Cup final, the 2006 FA Cup final or various Premier League campaigns.

This is not to completely dismiss Liverpool from the title race before maths decides otherwise. The rampage over Real will spark a new sense of optimism and victory at Old Trafford could make things interesting while, having resumed the underdog role, a trademark strong climax could be on the cards. But there appears too much to do in efforts to defend a tally of 18 league titles. Even if defeated, United would still possess a seven-point advantage if they win their game in hand, and the champions would also need to significantly lose their way in other matches in accompaniment with a drastic domestic improvement from Benitez's side in almost every department.