Bitter enemies with different targets

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The Independent Football

Games between Manchester United and Liverpool are played for high stakes and there is plenty riding on today's confrontation at Old Trafford. What is different from usual – certainly from a year ago, when Rafa Benitez's team achieved their stunning 4-1 victory on enemy territory – is that the clubs have contrasting targets in mind.

Whereas Liverpool's win last March hauled them back into contention for the Premier League title that United would eventually take, it is only fourth place and therefore the other Manchester side that they now have their eyes on. A win, or even a draw, would keep the pressure on City, who will only just have kicked off at Fulham when the Old Trafford game is over.

United, challenging as ever for the real prize, can squeeze Chelsea by moving five points ahead before their rivals play up the road in Blackburn.

Not that mathematical niceties are the prime consideration when these two tribes go to war. For Sir Alex Ferguson, who has been fighting this particular battle since arriving from Aberdeen in 1986, the fixture takes second place only to the Old Firm games in his native Glasgow.

"Somebody said to me the other day: 'do you think the Rangers-Celtic games are still the same?' I said: 'go and sit with a Celtic scarf in the Rangers end and see how you get on!' Rangers-Celtic games are the biggest, it's an incredible atmosphere at those games. But this is the biggest in the English game, no doubt in my mind."

United's manager has read his history and dates the rivalry to the building of the Manchester Ship Canal, which happened to be completed in exactly the same year that the teams first met (Liverpool won the 1894 play-off, so the clubs swapped divisions). "It's been a contentious thorn in the flesh to Liverpool in the sense of the industry growing up, when they opened the canals way back, the workers and industry going up to Manchester," he says. "I think you can trace it back to that. It's such a tribal League with different areas of the country all competing with each other."

To win it four times in succession has proved beyond the greatest teams in English football history, which is even more of an incentive to United (so they claim) than overhauling Liverpool's total of 18. As Darren Fletcher, an increasingly influential figure in their midfield, put it: "It's an inspiration, it's never happened. When people say there are no challenges, there are always challenges."

Holding on to his place in the side has proved one of them for Fletcher, who was bitterly disappointed to miss the last Champions' League final after a harsh sending-off at Arsenal. "I enjoy the big games," he said. "But first and foremost I want to win the match and do enough to keep my place for the following week. That's how I approach games. I stick to that because if I get carried away things can change. This is the moment where we kick on."

Ferguson is prepared to think longer-term, indeed regards it as an essential part of management to ensure that a squad does not grow too old and is constantly renewed with youthful vigour. "The club has been built to do well over the next few years," he said. "We've enough good young players and hopefully they can achieve that. The present squad, apart from the three old ones, Giggs, Scholes and Neville, should be there for a while. Players like Fletcher and O'Shea, Carrick and Rooney will be at the club a long time and they can take over and carry on the traditions of how we win trophies here, because knowing how to win things is sometimes better than having the ability to win things."

Benitez's talent for pulling out a result when it matters has been shown twice in a week; running in seven goals against Portsmouth and Lille lifted morale. His take on the rivalry is: "We have to be proud of [our] history but now we have to manage in a different way. We have to reduce this gap in the transfer market and on the pitch. But we are talking about a game and the fans have to respect each other."

There is as much chance of that as of Benitez sending his players from the Old Trafford dressing-room with the exhortation: "Remember the Ship Canal!" Perhaps after Albert Riera's taunt, a sarcastic "remember the sinking ship" would work better.

Today's games Manchester United v Liverpool (1.30, Sky Sports 1), Fulham v Manchester City (3.0), Blackburn Rovers v Chelsea (4.0, Sky Sports 1)