Liverpool have missed Gérard Houllier more than ever this past week. That is not a reflection on his deputy, Phil Thompson, who is wearing the sheriff's badge with real distinction, but merely to acknowledge the Frenchman's mastery of psychology as Manchester United slouch into town.
Houllier adopted a simple strategy in preparing for the visit of the champions. Liverpool are not even ready to compete, he would say, let alone harbour pretensions to their title, doffing his cap and tugging his forelock. And when Liverpool unexpectedly completed the double over their North-west rivals last season, a further arsenal of statistics was summoned to show why the result was a complete fluke and why you should really come back in three years for a more realistic assessment of the balance of power. Mostly, Houllier spoke the truth. But even he might have been pushed to maintain the humility against the background of his own side's impressive recent form and United's unusual fallibility.
Thompson tried to hold the line during the week, banning his players from talking about the United game for fear of provoking some antagonistic headlines. "We've had some good results over them recently," said Michael Owen, tentatively breaking the embargo. "But I don't want to give them extra motivation by saying that. We beat them home and away, but when the whistle goes I doubt that will give us a goal start.
"When we play a great game, not many teams can beat us. Likewise, when they are on top form, very few can beat them. We're at home, which is a slight advantage, they've been champions for seven of the last nine years, so that's their advantage. It's in the balance."
It is a few years since a Liverpool player could say that with any conviction. For the first time in almost a decade, United will travel down the East Lancs Road with the unusual feeling of being, if not quite underdogs, then not quite favourites either. Liverpool lie a point ahead of their rivals in the Premiership with a game in hand, and, despite their delayed qualification for the second group phase of the Champions' League, have proved more consistent and compact European competitors than United, who are still in the throes of a tactical redesign.
Neither Borussia Dortmund nor Boavista, Liverpool's most significant rivals in the opening group, were as accomplished as Deportivo la Coruña, who twice beat United in the group stage, but Liverpool, with three victories and three draws, have shown an instinctive understanding of the tactical rhythms of the Champions' League.
"I think we are still improving in Europe," said Dietmar Hamann after the 2-0 dissection of Borussia Dortmund on a night of old-fashioned fervour at Anfield. "We are still a young team. Stéphane Henchoz, at 27, was the oldest player in our team, the others are all 22, 23, and we are still learning. I wouldn't say we are on the same level yet as the really big teams in Europe – Real Madrid, Bayern Munich – and we still have a bit to catch up on in terms of experience with United and Arsenal, but if we keep focused, play 90 minutes with full concentration, we are hard to beat."
Liverpool's durability will be severely tested by Roma, Barcelona and Galatasaray in the second group phase, while United renew acquaintance with Bayern Munich for the third time in four years in their group. If Sir Alex Ferguson persists with his made-for-Europe tactics, with the in-form Ole Gunnar Solskjaer relegated to the bench again and Ruud van Nistelrooy playing as the lone striker, today's encounter at Anfield might take on the aspect and pace of a European Cup quarter-final rather than a blood-and-thunder tear-up in the Premiership. United are old hands at lifting themselves for two big occasions inside a week, but Liverpool have every right to approach high noon with the confidence of a gunslinger with the sun at his back.
Those of us who thought that the injury to Sami Hyypia would make Liverpool vulnerable, notably against the giant Jan Koller last Tuesday, reckoned without Jamie Carragher, who was outstanding in the second half rearguard action at Charlton last Saturday and equally commanding against Borussia.
The subduing of Koller was a tribute to the sort of intelligent defensive planning notably absent from Manchester United's back line this season. Instead of marking behind the Borussia striker, Liverpool blocked off the space in front of him, did not bother to contest the headers and simply dropped back five yards to pick up the flick-ons. Long before the end of the evening, Koller had become a distraught and disconsolate figure, deprived of service and unable to fashion any form of coherent threat to the Liverpool goal.
At least as impressive has been the form of Hamann, who has been transformed from a ball-playing inside forward to an accomplished defensive midfielder in his time on Merseyside. At Newcastle, his slim waist, thin legs and range of passes reminded longer serving supporters of George Eastham. Liverpool, with one eye on Europe, have adapted these skills to such good effect that the German is a permanent, if often underestimated, presence in the Liverpool side, seemingly immune to the club's rotation system. The one drawback was that Hamman's yellow card will keep him out of the opening game of the second group phase at the end of this month.
For Thompson, who has won four of his five games since taking over the reins from Houllier, the main concern is the erratic form of Emile Heskey, now without a goal for the club since the end of August, 14 matches ago. Robbie Fowler, who trebled Heskey's Premiership tally this season in one game, must be wondering exactly what is required to hold down a regular place in the first team. A hat-trick against Leicester and then relegated to the bench for the next game at Charlton to make way for the return of Michael Owen. Had Fowler been unsure of his place in the World Cup squad, like Kevin Phillips at Sunderland, he would have been pressing for a move by now. There is only so much even a devoted home town boy can take. But Heskey? Electrifying one minute, excruciating the next. Even Sven Goran Eriksson, who has toyed with the idea of deploying him on the left side of midfield, is perplexed.
At Leicester, Martin O'Neill let Heskey run hard and true, straight to the heart of defences. Liverpool are trying to turn him into a footballer, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, he will display a surprising delicacy of touch and lay the ball off like an accomplished striker; more often, lines of communication break down somewhere between brain and foot. Heskey is not a target man because he cannot head the ball and has a bizarre positional sense, yet take away all the geometrical complications, allow him to run in a straight line towards goal and he is a formidable and damaging foe. His one full-blooded gallop at the Borussia defence caused the free-kick from which Stephen Wright scored the second goal.
For today, thoughts of Europe take second place to domestic squabbles. Such is the depth of rivalry between Liverpool and United, matches could be played in the local park and still bristle with meaning. Bolton, Newcastle, Tottenham, Leeds, all of them, win or lose, have chipped away at United's aura of invincibility. Liverpool have already been lifted by the news that Houllier has been discharged from hospital after his heart surgery. The road to recovery will be long and difficult for the Frenchman, who will have to resist his instinct to return too early. "We want him back quickly, but safely," as Michael Owen said. "You can tell how much he means to the fans. They were singing his name every other minute." Victory today for Liverpool will be a very serious notice of intent, both at home and abroad.Reuse content