Lee Dixon: Liverpool v United is the game that's got it all (except possibly Rooney if Sir Alex plays it safe)

The Weekend Dossier
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Liverpool against Manchester United is a game that holds its prestige no matter what level the teams are at.

It's not a derby but it has the air of one, a fierce rivalry, on and off the pitch, that helps make it a unique fixture in the Premier League. It is a game embedded in the history of English football and – as if it needed it – has an extra edge now that United have overtaken Liverpool in the number of titles won.

Liverpool are still playing catch-up with United but are closer than a couple of years ago. Despite that hammering at Tottenham, they will be confident having won the last three games against United at Anfield. Players are experts at picking up on good omens (and ignoring bad ones) and that will help. Liverpool have made a decent start, that poor showing against Tottenham apart, and today will give us a better idea whether that drubbing at White Hart Lane was a blip and they really are on the way up. They are poised in fifth and this is one of those benchmark games that will demonstrate if Liverpool can force their way back among the top four. It adds another ingredient to a mouth-watering game.

United have started exceptionally well, but despite that there are chinks in the armour. So far this season David de Gea has made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League. That may have helped the Spaniard settle – David Seaman assures me he has what it takes and don't forget De Gea is 20, still ridiculously young for a keeper – but it's a remarkable statistic. United's defence has not been the mighty unit of recent seasons. They have missed Nemanja Vidic massively. Phil Jones has made a dynamic start to his United career, proving a real force going forward. Likewise Chris Smalling is a player of real potential but it takes time to build up that understanding among new personnel. They are leaving gaps. Rio Ferdinand's injury issues have clouded the situation and he does not look back to his best.

Part of United's issues at the back may come down to the gusto with which they have been attacking this season. They scored eight against Arsenal, conceded two and could easily have let in more. Chelsea had 19 shots in their defeat at Old Trafford and then United let that two-goal lead slip against Basle. I have no doubt they will tighten up, especially when Vidic is fit, but for the moment it gives opponents something to go at.

Then there is the Rooney factor. After the week he's had, a nice home match against mid-table opposition would have been ideal. Instead it's Liverpool at Anfield, the fiercest fixture he could face. Last season Sir Alex Ferguson left him out of the squad for United's game at Everton for off-field reasons and it would not surprise me if he was to leave him on the bench today. Ferguson will have had all week to watch him in training and assess whether he is in the right frame of mind to play.

A player will always insist that he is OK, but there are times when the manager can see the bigger picture. A footballer's existence at the highest level can be a strange one – everything is speeded up and life can be suppressed into three- or four-day cycles. You play, something happens, there's a storm, then three days later you are playing again and everything moves on. Inside that you have to be able to switch your focus completely to the next game and sometimes players can't do that. We saw how Rooney played in the World Cup when he had issues over his private life hanging over him.

Liverpool have defensive issues of their own. It was one of the areas of the team I thought they might have strengthened more with all that spending. They bought the Uruguayan Sebastian Coates but his only League start so far was in that Tottenham game. They still rely too much on Jamie Carragher, who is using all his know-how and experience to get through. He will not last forever and he is beginning to slow up. Jose Enrique was a good signing but there are weaknesses there.

Otherwise they look strong. Going forward they have plenty and there are signs that Andy Carroll is beginning to settle. Taking on the No 9 shirt at Anfield is a challenge for any player and he has taken time to adjust to their system. But there are lots of aspects to his game that I like and in Kenny Dalglish a striker could not have a better manager.

The Dalglish/Ferguson confrontation offers yet another reason to savour this game, as if we needed anything else. It is worth keeping a camera fixed on the benches throughout. I can see both being left unhappy from a game with plenty of goals – 2-2 anybody?

Dixon's Five Asides

1. Leaving our best player at home would be madness

I would be astonished if Fabio Capello did not take Wayne Rooney to the European Championships next summer. If England cannot qualify from their group without Rooney – as much as he may be the side's talisman – what does that say about the state of our national team? It would be a disaster not to reach the knock-out stages full stop. And once through, it would be crazy not to have your best player around. He may still be able to play earlier: if the FA appeal, I would not be surprised to see the ban reduced to two games.

2. Spain friendly will give us idea of standard required

As for England, it was a job done in getting to the finals but not a job done at all well. The second-half performance in Montenegro bordered on the inept. It is a mental issue that they gave such a sloppy goal away just before half-time and were then unable to get a grip on the game in the second half. But it's good to see they will play Spain as part of the build-up to next summer. A fixture against the best team in the world should excite the players and serve them well come the finals, where they have been found wanting in the past.

3. Bolton happy to wander after dismal home run

Bolton are at Wigan today and may be relieved that their best chance of ending a dire run of form comes away from home. Their results at the Reebok could not have been worse: played four, lost four. They need a drastic improvement.

4. Arsenal's pretty football no use if you can't defend

Arsenal played some good football at White Hart Lane but while they can't keep the ball out of their own net they are going to struggle to put things right. They were so poor defensively and the second goal still pains me. If you concede from a throw-in you are in big trouble.

5. Running tracks aren't always such bad news

As a player I never liked grounds with running tracks so wouldn't have been happy if my club were going to move into the Olympic Stadium. I prefer grounds where the stands are almost on top of the pitch – that's why Goodison is a favourite. There was once when I was more than happy with a track. Arsenal were playing in Izmir, I went to take a throw and the crowd were chucking spark plugs at me. On the next one a yellow indicator landed at my feet. Were they stripping a car outside the ground? Whatever, I was very grateful for the extra throwing distance the track demanded.

Team Sheets: Game By Game

Liverpool v Manchester United

Odds: Home 2-1; Draw 23-10; Away 7-5

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Team news: Steven Gerrard could make his first Liverpool start in seven months while Glen Johnson and Dan Agger also return. Manchester United have Nemanja Vidic back; Tom Cleverley and Rafael remain out.

Manchester City v Aston Villa

Odds: Home 4-11; Draw 100-30; Away 9-1

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Team news: Sergio Aguero (groin) is unlikely to be rushed back for City, with Mario Balotelli likely to come in. Gabriel Agbonlahor returns from a back injury for Villa, but Nathan Delfouneso and Jermaine Jenas miss out.

Norwich v Swansea

Odds: Home 6-5; Draw 23-10; Away 12-5

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Team news: Norwich have no fresh injury worries, with Andrew Crofts included. Zak Whitebread (hamstring) is out. Swansea have Leon Britton (back) available as Kemy Agustien (hamstring) again misses out.

QPR v Blackburn

Odds: Home 5-6; Draw 5-2; Away 7-2

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Team news: Neil Warnock misses Danny Gabbidon through a knee injury with Armand Traoré returning from a ban. Blackburn have doubts over Morten Gamst Pedersen (hamstring) and David Goodwillie (illness).

Stoke v Fulham

Odds: Home 6-5; Draw 11-5; Away 5-2

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Team news: Matthew Etherington (back) is a doubt for Stoke, along with Kenwyne Jones, Jermaine Pennant and Marc Wilson. Fulham welcome back Aaron Hughes (groin) but Bryan Ruiz remains unavailable.

Wigan v Bolton

Odds: Home 5-4; Draw 9-4; Away 11-5

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Team news: Steve Gohouri returns for Wigan after a ban, but James McCarthy and Hugo Rodallega are doubtful. Jussi Jaaskelainen is back for Bolton, along with Gaël Kakuta, David Wheater and Ivan Klasnic.

Chelsea v Everton

Odds: Home 4-11; Draw 4-1; Away 9-1

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC 1, 10.20pm)

Team news: David Luiz is unlikely to feature for Chelsea, while Fernando Torres is suspended. David Moyes has doubts over Tim Cahill, Johnny Heitinga and Leon Osman but Jack Rodwell is free to play.

West Bromwich v Wolves

Odds: Home 11-10 Draw 21-10 Away 11-4

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 12pm (Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news: Peter Odemwingie and Zoltan Gera have overcome ankle injuries for the hosts, but Gabriel Tamas and Steven Reid are doubts. Steven Fletcher (calf) is ruled out for Wolves, while George Elokobi has an ankle injury.

Arsenal v Sunderland

Odds: Home 4-9; Draw 100-30; Away 13-2

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news: Bacary Sagna is replaced by Carl Jenkinson for Arsenal; Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou return. Nicklas Bendtner is ineligible for the visitors, with Phil Bardsley and Titus Bramble banned.

Newcastle v Tottenham

Odds: Home 2-1; Draw 23-10; Away 7-5

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news: Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba are fit for Newcastle. Harry Redknapp awaits updates on Emmanuel Adebayor, Sandro and Aaron Lennon, while Rafael van der Vaart should be available.