The Manchester United manager is reminded almost every day, when he crosses the signposted upper reaches of the River Mersey a mile from his side's Carrington training ground, of the team whose historical, 18-title pre-eminence has obsessed and driven him for so long – and whom he can take a huge stride towards surpassing with a win at Old Trafford tomorrow. That signpost is a motif of Sir Alex Ferguson's most monumental rivalry – 50 games as manager against one side, with the defeats being the ones he keeps returning to in his mind. The 4-0 defeat Bob Paisley's side delivered his Aberdeen players in the European Cup in November 1980 and the abuse inflicted on his players by Liverpool fans after a 2-0 defeat handed the title to Leeds 18 years ago, are foremost among the memories he always tends to hark back to.
The history of this particular battle may be long and complex but the symmetries of tomorrow's encounter have rarely been simpler. Two clubs in American owners' hands, each grappling with debt and ownership crises – and yet each in possession of one player without whom this season would probably already have been marked out as one of crushing failure. For Rafael Benitez, there is Fernando Torres, 26 today, whose demolition of Nemanja Vidic in a the 4-1 win at Old Trafford last spring will be playing around in the Serbian's restive mind this weekend. For Ferguson there is Wayne Rooney, whose 32 goals have exorcised the ghost of Cristiano Ronaldo at a stroke.
Benitez did not deny yesterday that when the talking was done it all actually came down to these two individuals. Would you swap Torres for Rooney? he was then asked. "Not really. Fernando is a fantastic player. So is Rooney too. There's no doubt Rooney is very, very good. But Fernando is our player, the fans love him and we want to keep him for a very long time."
He could hardly have said much else, but there is statistical evidence to suggest such a swap would represent poor value for him and that it is Torres who poses a more dangerous threat than the Englishman 19 months his junior. Because while Torres relishes the prospect of United – two goals against them in the last two games – Rooney has had a curious lack of success against the team he was brought up to detest.
The 24-year-old has mustered only one goal in 11 appearances for United against Liverpool, scored 20 minutes into his first game for United at Liverpool, a 1-0 win at Anfield on 15 January 2005. There have been no goals since: nothing, in 10 games: 15 hours and 50 minutes of football. This seems to be a Merseyside thing. There has been a solitary goal in nine appearances against Everton, too, and the only blip in this extraordinary goalscoring winter of Rooney's was the surprisingly muted offering in United's visit to Goodison Park last month.
Maybe you simply cannot take Merseyside out of the boy. Ferguson was believed to have been considering leaving Rooney out of the United team which lost 2-0 at Anfield in October, the day after his 24th birthday, because of his struggle to manage his emotions against the Reds. Before last March's Old Trafford match, Rooney declared – in comments published and then removed from United's website – that he looked forward to Liverpool matches "because I grew up as an Everton fan hating Liverpool. That hasn't changed."
Torres appears to be in a state of some emotion at the moment, too – curiously, he has been booked for dissent in three of Liverpool's last four matches – but that has not stopped him scoring five goals in his last five starts, with Liverpool's return to form coinciding with his own return to fitness. For sure, he is certainly less bound up in the baggage of an occasion like tomorrow's.
Ferguson is not accustomed to acknowledging the talent of other managers' players but Torres – a player he once looked at but allowed Benitez to beat him to – is different. Ferguson did not challenge Benitez's assumption yesterday that the current gap between United and Liverpool – 15 points and four places, this morning – "would have been smaller" had he had as much use of Torres this season as Ferguson has had of Rooney. "That's possible. I think he is right there," Ferguson admitted.
What on earth Torres's goal tally might have run to in a season had he worn United red and not Liverpool is one only for the fantasists to conjure with. Perhaps 50? The sole benefit for Benitez of having had him missing for so long is that Torres is now probably the fresher of the two strikers, running at defenders with a venom. To see this at close quarters when Liverpool thumped Lille on Thursday night made you fear for Vidic.
Ferguson declared yesterday that Vidic and Rio Ferdinand's absences also left them stronger for the run-in, and he laughed off that 4-1 defeat – remembered most vividly for Vidic missing the flight of a ball as it fell out of a blue sky and Torres disappearing off to bury it in the net seconds later. "It won't happen again, I can assure you. Absolutely no chance," Ferguson said. "[That day] was an abnormal blip, a lack of concentration on our team's part and we were well over it the next week and went on to win the League." But Vidic has not looked the same immutable force since that day. He was very nearly undone by another long ball against Fulham's Bobby Zamora last Sunday before catching up to make a fine recovering tackle.
If Torres does get the better of things, then expect more fireworks from Ferguson tomorrow than we witnessed yesterday, because the temperature between these two managers remains barely above freezing. Benitez made an unlaboured gesture when Ferguson's grandson, Charlie, was recovering in the Alder Hey children's hospital on Merseyside after a bad car accident last May, writing to say that if he or his family would like to help in any way they could. But still, there is no thaw. "I had [a relationship with him] before, and now I know him a little bit better," Benitez said yesterday. The letter "was private; it was something as a person you have to do. There is the personal relationship with someone, and a professional relationship. You have to separate these things." So perhaps the relationship is not as bad as people think? "I don't talk with him," Benitez replied flatly.
The waters are not entirely frozen over at the Manchester end of the M62. Ferguson's programme notes tomorrow are understood to express sympathy for Benitez and the weight of expectation he is facing at Anfield. But the Spaniard knows the score: Ferguson speaks out most against those he fears the most. "I understand that the last year we both said a lot of things and this year is different," Benitez said. "They are at the top of the table, we have to do our job if we want to be in the top four."
For all that, United can never feel comfortable when Liverpool are in town. Benitez's side seek a fourth successive win over Ferguson's tomorrow, with their financial destiny bound up in achieving a Champions League place for next season and the revenue it will bring. All the signs point to another battle royal.