A milestone or a millstone? The 186th meeting of the two most successful clubs in the history of English football at Anfield this lunchtime has the potential to be either, depending on the attitude of players and spectators; and the one could influence the other. Just like last Saturday, when Queens Park Rangers met Chelsea, the official pre-match handshake and accompanying body language together with every reverberation from a 45,000 crowd will be scrutinised as carefully as anything happening between the first and final whistle.
Meanwhile football holds its breath, waiting to discover whether the coincidence of a fixture between the Premier League's bitterest rivals in the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report proves a blessing or a curse. In the past few days both Liverpool and Manchester United have brought out their captains Steven Gerrard and Nemanja Vidic to talk about restraint on and off the pitch and appeal for an end to appalling chants about the 1989 disaster and the 1958 Munich air crash that devastated United. The pair will release 96 balloons in memory of the fans who died at Hillsborough, which will be especially poignant for Gerrard, whose 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley was the youngest of them all.
Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra – assuming the United full-back plays – will be expected to forget their feud in these circumstances, the hope being that the Hillsborough report can prove a catalyst for new standards of decency among not only both sets of supporters, but others all over the world. "It's set up for it to happen," Gerrard said at Liverpool's training ground on Friday. "[Managers] Alex Ferguson and Brendan Rodgers and Man U's captain Vidic have spoken about it and this is the right time and occasion to put it all to bed. I've got my fingers crossed that that's the case. If I can reiterate that message, not just to the United fans but to the Liverpool fans I think it would be a great occasion for that to happen. And not just because of the last couple of weeks but because it's not right.
"This is more important than football, what we're talking about. There were two big disasters, both United and Liverpool were affected. I'm hoping human decency breaks out. The game's on TV, everyone's waiting to see what kind of reaction it gets and it's a great opportunity for Liverpool fans and Manchester United fans to send a message across the world. If it's a fantastic match, there's a handshake before the game and there's no vile chanting, it will be a great advert."
United supporters said on phone-ins last weekend that they had remonstrated with their own fans who sang anti-Liverpool songs, and Gerrard wants anyone in the capacity crowd to do the same today: "You've got a responsibility to tell the person next to you not to go down that road. I'm sure the Liverpool and Manchester United fans know what the right thing to do is."
Whenever Gerrard drives into Anfield he looks for the name of his cousin in the Hillsborough memorial on the Shankly Gates and makes the sign of the cross. "He was the same as me, a year older, a Liverpool fan from a council estate who loved his footy, kicking around in the street. I've stood on the Kop many times when it was still terraced and been involved at games like that. So it could have been anyone, it could have been any Liverpool fan."
As for the fuss about handshakes, he said: "I want to try and focus on what's going to happen on the pitch and not go into the game thinking about what Luis and Evra are going to do and what's going to be chanted on the terraces. We all need to remember it's a big game of football. Everyone should be excited."
It comes with Liverpool seeking a first win in the fifth League game and their new manager Rodgers needing to win over those unsure about his pedigree or his implementation of a style based on even more exclusive possession than Anfield has been used to down the years. A 5-3 victory by what was effectively the reserves in a Europa League game away to Young Boys of Berne on Thursday helped his cause but a win over United would do far more. "It would be fantastic for him," Gerrard said, adding: "I think it's a great opportunity for us to win our first game in the League and kick-start the season. We've been inconsistent in the opening four games. I thought we were fantastic against Manchester City and Sunderland, but very disappointing against West Brom and Arsenal."
Emotional as the preliminaries will be, he is aware that rivalry remains. "Liverpool players and Manchester United players are not all of a sudden going to start liking each other. There's a big game of football and a lot at stake. That's why we all love football, that's why it's the best league in the world, because of these rivalries. That can't stop. But there's a line."
Liverpool v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pmReuse content