Ferguson fears the 'Anfield factor' could strike again

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The Independent Football

The Manchester derby is just over a week away but it will have to wait a little longer before it supplants this afternoon's encounter at Anfield.

To Sir Alex Ferguson, there is no game bigger than Liverpool v Manchester United, not even the nights when Real Madrid face Barcelona.

"You know the difference," said Ferguson. "Barcelona is at one end of the country and Madrid is at the other. Fans don't travel. Please. It is hard to rival this. The only game that can rival Manchester United-Liverpool is Rangers-Celtic. In fact, it doesn't rival it, it beats it. The Rangers-Celtic game is different."

All three are underpinned by factors other than football. In Spain it is language and politics, in Glasgow religion and in this corner of Lancashire industrial rivalry. Liverpool was where the cotton came in, usually from the slave states of America, and Manchester was where it was processed.

"It goes back to how industry changed here when they opened the Manchester Ship Canal [to bypass the Mersey tolls]," said the United manager. "It affected the history of both cities. Although things may change in the next two or three years with Manchester City, I've always considered Manchester United v Liverpool to be the game of the season in English football and, at the moment, it remains that.

"It is never going to change. Both clubs need each other, to be honest with you. Their history should be appreciated by both sets of fans. Sometimes, when I hear silly chants about Munich or Hillsborough, I don't think it does either club any good at all because without each other it would not be the English league."

Ferguson's record against Liverpool runs in three distinct phases. Before the Premier League breakaway, when Anfield was the epicentre of English football, United ran a fairly successful guerrilla war against Liverpool, losing four out of 14 fixtures.

Then came a long, almost unbroken period of dominance – between 1995 and 2000 Liverpool did not win a single match. Now there is equality, of sorts; Liverpool have won more than half their games against Manchester United since the millennium while rarely suggesting they possessed resources to match them over a season.

Nevertheless, Ferguson conceded that on the last three occasions his sides had gone to Anfield, they had been outfought. "Is there an Anfield factor? There is no doubt about that," he said. "In my time we have had nine players sent off which is unusual for Manchester United. That is all down to the atmosphere that can be created at Anfield. Their support has been fantastic, it has got them going. They have fought for every ball. Although we have played well in parts, we have made really crucial mistakes, which is unusual for us. Look at last season's game – Nani heads the ball straight back to Dirk Kuyt. Wes Brown could have won the tackle against Luis Suarez on the byline. We made some elementary mistakes. We can't afford that this time, we just can't."

Despite the lunchtime kick-off, the atmosphere around Anfield will be no different, which will test the mettle of Ferguson's young, often thrilling side. Their triumphs against Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham were significant, but they have come in the confines of Old Trafford. Liverpool away is another matter entirely, which is why Ferguson will spend much of his time debating whether to lean on the experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence.

Neither enjoyed the international break. Vidic, who has not played for United since the opening game of the season at West Bromwich, returned to lead Serbia on Tuesday night, missing a penalty in a 1-0 defeat against Slovenia that denied them a place in the European Championship.

Ferdinand was not selected for England's fateful draw in Montenegro. Tempting though it must have been to discuss the merits of the FA – an organisation that banned Wayne Rooney for two matches for swearing into a television camera – appealing against a three-match ban for assault, Ferguson absolutely refused to be drawn on his forward's suspension by Uefa. He did, however, concede that Ferdinand's international career might be drawing to a close.

"Maybe Fabio Capello is looking to the future," he said. "Rio is 32. That may just be the reason. Some managers think that way and there is nothing wrong with that, looking to the future.

"Evans, Jones and Smalling have been outstanding so Rio and Vidic are well aware they are going to have to play well to keep their places."

Six of the best: Other fierce rivalries

Rangers v Celtic

The animosity between these Glasgow rivals is rooted in sectarianism. An on-pitch battle between fans at Hampden Park after the 1980 Scottish Cup final led to the banning of alcohol in stadiums. Police were involved last year when Celtic manager Neil Lennon received death threats and bullets through the post.

Lazio v Roma

Rivalry dates from Lazio resenting Roma's formation, by dictator Benito Mussolini, as a 'superclub' to represent the capital. Support is drawn from different areas of the capital. In 1979 a Lazio fan was killed by a flare fired from the Roma end and a game was abandoned amid violence five years later.

Real Madrid v Barcelona

El Clásico was once coined 'a re-enactment of the Spanish Civil War' due to Real's association with General Franco and Barca's strong Catalan identity. In 2000 Luis Figo had a pig's head thrown at him after switching from Barça to Real.

Fenerbahce v Galatasaray

Istanbul's fiercest derby sparked into life in 1934 when riots took place on and off the pitch during a friendly. Graeme Souness infamously inflamed tensions after Galatasaray's 1996 Turkish Cup win, planting the club's flag in the middle of Fenerbahçe's pitch.

Boca Juniors v River Plate

A rivalry based on social class and money, with 'the Millionaires' River Plate moving from the docklands area of Buenos Aires to a more affluent district of the city in 1925. This season marks the first since Boca's formation in 1905 that a league derby will not be played due to River Plate's relegation.

Red Star v Partizan Belgrade

The Eternal Derby is contested across multiple sports, but the football rivalry is fiercest. A Partizan fan was stabbed to death in an arranged fight between supporters in 2006.

Mathew Beech and Matthew Porter