x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

United shouldn't expect any favours

Anfield is the stage today for what promises to be the defining moment of a splendidly fluctuating campaign.

Twenty embarrassing years have elapsed since Liverpool established their proud record of winning the English League championship for the 18th time. During that frustrating barren spell Manchester United, their close neighbours in the north west of the country and much fiercer rivals than derby foes Everton, have claimed the title 11 times. That extraordinary run of dominance under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson has taken United to the brink of overtaking the Merseysiders in the all-time hall of fame as a 19th title comes tantalisingly within view.

Intriguingly, Liverpool are in the best position to stop Ferguson and his men from taking their cherished record from them. Anfield is the stage today for what promises to be the defining moment of a splendidly fluctuating campaign. Chelsea, one point clear of United with two matches left, probably need to win both of those to hold United at bay and therefore the outcome of the title race may depend on the mood of a Liverpool team who were themselves expected to be serious contenders this term after pushing United all the way last season.

Curiously, Liverpool have underachieved so much this campaign that even a top-four place which earns entry into the Champions League looks beyond them. That probable failure to deliver what Rafa Benitez, the manager, stupidly called a "guaranteed" qualification and the disappointing Europa League semi-final exit to Atletico Madrid on Thursday night indicates full-scale changes are likely at the club in the summer, including at management level with the Spaniard linked to Juventus.

All of which adds weight to those of us who suspect Liverpool might not mind too much if Carlo Ancelotti's men make a successful raid on what was once fortress Anfield this afternoon and render irrelevant any favours United might receive from Steve Bruce, one of their favourite sons, whose Sunderland team tackle Sir Alex Ferguson's men later in the day. Liverpool players, led by Steven Gerrard, their indefatigable captain, reacted swiftly during the build-up to the game to shoot down the conspiracy theorists. And rightly so. But at this level, though, there can be a crucial difference between commitment to the cause and total commitment.

There was a similar scenario in 1995 when the mischief makers had a field day forecasting how a gripping finale between United and Blackburn Rovers would be resolved. Blackburn were managed by Kenny Dalglish, as big an Anfield idol as any of the famous names who have captivated the Kop during the club's glory years, and it was regarded as a "done deal" that he would secure the title-clinching victory he was looking for on his old stamping ground on the final day that season.

Again Liverpool protested in advance of the showdown. And their indignation was vindicated in a battling fightback from a half-time deficit to secure a 2-1 victory which left Dalglish a distraught figure standing by the dugout being consoled by Roy Evans, his Liverpool counterpart. Within seconds, however, Dalglish was wildly jumping for joy after being informed that United had, against all expectations, failed to beat West Ham at Upton Park. A 1-1 draw gave Blackburn the title.

Despite the tightness at the top this term, goal difference is unlikely to be a deciding factor which takes the shine off Chelsea's morale-boosting 7-0 thrashing of Stoke City last week. But the simple equation of two more victories for the erratic Londoners will do it. Do not be surprised if they claim the first of those this afternoon - and that it is greeted warmly by a large majority of those watching.