x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Manchester United's fighting qualities are needed against Liverpool

Manchester United can look to the past for examples of how to respond in the face of adversity — they are specialists at it. And a scrap with old foes is what they relish.

Wayne Rooney will look to get back on his feet when Manchester United meet Liverpool.
Wayne Rooney will look to get back on his feet when Manchester United meet Liverpool.

It's not how you lose. It's how you respond. That has been part of the Manchester United mantra for two decades. It is why prolonged slumps have been non-existent, why they defy predictions of decline, why the occasional embarrassment tends to bring an emphatic response.

The 4-1 hammering at Middlesbrough in 2005 and the week where Roy Keane finally pressed the self-destruct button preceded a 1-0 win over Chelsea. Go back a further nine years and when United lost three successive league games, conceding 12 goals, their fightback began by beating Arsenal. It is no coincidence that 14 of their past 20 reverses have been followed by a victory. That is the United way.

Defeats tend to bring their fighting qualities to the fore. Sometimes Sir Alex Ferguson uses the hairdryer treatment, sometimes more subtle pieces of psychology, but he tends to get a reaction. He can still frighten his charges.

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"Definitely," said Ryan Giggs. "I know what he's capable of. He has mellowed but he's still got that desire and especially when you don't play [well], that's when you're not looking to head back to the dressing room."

Not that this is the time to suggest the United manager has gone soft. Ferguson rarely needs an excuse to assume that the forces of darkness are conspiring against him.

He has rarely had a better chance to build a siege mentality. Because Wayne Rooney has been demonised (for elbowing Wigan's James McCarthy), his side defeated (at Chelsea) and Ferguson himself has been charged for his post-match comments at Stamford Bridge.

It is tempting to brand it the worst week of their season, though that is a backhanded compliment in itself. A campaign that has included only two defeats has hardly been traumatic. Back-to-back losses to Chelsea and Liverpool, however, would be worrying and potentially costly.

Yet one game can alter perceptions, and United approach Anfield in a state of disrepair. Injuries have hardly impeded them all season, but they threaten to now.

Their trademark defiance will have its difficulties. Chris Smalling and Wes Brown might rank fourth and fifth in the queue for the central defensive positions. Now, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans injured and Nemanja Vidic suspended, they will be paired: one in his seventh league start for the club, the other in the starting XI for just the third time this season.

The temptation to assume that Vidic's warrior spirit will be missed should be assuaged by the knowledge that the Serb has been sent off on his last two visits to Anfield. Nevertheless, it raises the possibility that the stand-ins will be charged with halting Liverpool's two costliest players, should Andy Carroll be fit to start alongside Luis Suarez. This is a test of resources and resourcefulness, of mettle and mental strength.

But this is the chance to complete a life's work. When Kenny Dalglish resigned as Liverpool manager, it was two weeks before a teenage Giggs debuted for United. The Merseysiders had 18 league titles then, the Mancunians seven. Now they are level.

Ferguson, who once defined his biggest challenge as "knocking Liverpool off their … perch," is on the brink of a historic superiority. Giggs, set to pass Sir Bobby Charlton's total of 606 league appearances for the club, is still nearer to a record of his own.

"It's the biggest rivalry in English football," said Giggs, 37. "It's the two most successful clubs and the passion of both. It's the one place where you get most satisfaction when you get a result because you've got to play against a team, a history, the fans. It's a special moment when you get a result."

All the more special, too, when it is achieved in adversity. Dalglish, 60, cuts a more relaxed figure these days, affording glimpses of his dry sense of humour. Ferguson, to use the nickname his Aberdeen players bestowed upon him, is furious.

And that is when United can be at their most dangerous.

sports@thenational.ae

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