Can United end Liverpool’s title challenge?

By Gareth Freeman

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Torres is a doubt in this fixture as United look to end Liverpool’s title bid

On Sunday Manchester United make the short trip to Anfield to face bitter rivals Liverpool.  These ties are always well hyped, important and hard fought occasions but this fixture has even more at stake than usual.  Should United take all three points against their old enemies it will effectively end Liverpool’s title challenge before we’ve even reached November.

With four losses already in the league this season Rafael Benitez’s men are in real danger and no team has ever lost more than five games and gone on to lift the title at the end of the season.  It is paramount for Liverpool to secure victory in this tie, but United are just starting to find their groove and could deliver the fatal blow to the Merseysiders.

Firstly I suppose we’d better look at just why Liverpool have been so inconsistent this season.  As far as I’m concerned, though feel free to disagree – they’ve been weak in more than one are, the key problem is their defence.

Their Champions League defeat to Lyon highlighted these problems, particularly in Lyon’s second goal where goalkeeper Pepe Reina raced out of his goal to claim a cross in the six yard box. There were plenty of Liverpool players who could have got a head to it and cleared the ball but Reina clearly didn’t trust them so decided to try and claim it, he ended up fluffing his catch and the French side eventually scored.

Reina is a decent keeper but he clearly didn’t have faith in Jamie Carragher or Martin Skrtel’s ability to clear the danger.  Both Carragher and Skrtel have been guilty of some ridiculously sloppy play, by their standards, this season and Liverpool’s defensive frailties have really cost them in these early stages of the season.

At the other end of the field Benitez’s side haven’t looked much better.  Fernando Torres seems to have bursts of goal scoring runs but has been absent in too many games this season, though the Spaniard is a slight doubt for Benitez going into the fixture with United.  Steven Gerrard and Torres have both suffered bouts of injury this season, which hasn’t helped matters at Anfield and questions will remain about the strength of the team without those two key figures playing regularly.

The Premier League betting odds have United as favourites despite the game being played at Anfield but it would be foolish to dismiss the Liverpool threat.  Even without Torres and Gerrard they are capable of beating United and players such as Yossi Benayoun are capable of creating something out of nothing.  The danger men could indeed be Benayoun and Torres but the pressure will be on the Liverpool defence to keep the United attack at bay.

United should have Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney back from injury which will be a massive boost for Sir Alex and I feel both players could be vital to securing all three points.  Rooney loves playing against Liverpool and always causes them plenty of problems, while Giggs will be a thorn in Liverpool’s side if he can effectively exploit the gaps left in the Liverpool back four when Glen Johnson gets forward.

There is also Michael Owen to consider, the United striker began his career with Liverpool and was a firm fans favourite but I doubt they’ll welcome him back with open arms if he makes an appearance on Sunday.  Owen has a habit of scoring goals on big occasions – the Manchester derby winner, a goal in El Classico, and THAT England goal against Argentina in the World Cup – and I wouldn’t online bet against him finding the net on Sunday.  With Rooney back it seems unlikely Owen will start but I’m sure Ferguson will give him a run out, especially if United need a late goal.

So can United end Liverpool’s title challenge at this early stage of the season?  Of course they can, they have the better players and head into this fixture in better form.  However, Liverpool’s home form hasn’t been their problem and they have won three out of four at Anfield, their only loss being at the hands of Aston Villa and they’ve notched up 15 goals at Anfield with only Arsenal scoring more on home soil.  It won’t be easy for United, but should they take all three points off Liverpool or even hold them to a draw Benitez’s men will be all but out of the race for the Premier League title.

Possible starting XIs (unless Gerrard is passed fit, which looks very unlikely)

Liverpool: Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua, Johnson, Mascherano, Benayoun, Lucas, Kuyt, Babel, Torres.

Man Utd: Van der Sar, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Giggs, Scholes, Anderson, Valencia, Rooney, Berbatov.

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