Thompson's 'whipping boys' face United test

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The Independent Online

When, sixteen long years ago, Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford, his burning purpose was to break Liverpool's stranglehold on domestic football. Barring an unlikely meeting in the FA or European Cup, tonight presents the Manchester United manager with his last crack at the great enemy.

Victory at Old Trafford would complete a remarkable transformation. On 12 December, Liverpool were 11 points clear of United with a game in hand, prompting Ferguson to observe that it would require "a miracle" for him to win a fourth successive Premiership trophy. Should Liverpool lose, they will find themselves eight points adrift of United – a swing of 19 points in a little more than a month – and virtually out of a race for a title that at one time appeared to be theirs for the taking.

On Saturday, they were booed off at Anfield by what is traditionally one of the most tolerant crowds in the game, with the Kop singling out Danny Murphy for special treatment. For many on Merseyside, the collapse will be reminiscent of the fate of Roy Evans's talented but indisciplined side, which leading the Premiership at the end of January 1997 found itself overhauled first by Manchester United and then by Newcastle and Arsenal.

"There was a lot of frustration from the fans which I can appreciate," said the Liverpool assistant manager, Phil Thompson, recalling the listless draw with Southampton. "But in the cold light of day I'm sure some of the supporters would have regretted their action to single out Danny. A month ago, he was player of the month and on cloud nine."

Thompson's managerial credentials have come under fierce scrutiny since the 4-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge on 16 December that triggered Liverpool's dramatic decline. While United have won eight Premiership matches on the trot, Liverpool have dropped five points against Southampton and won one of their last nine league matches.

When asked if he required three or four players to rediscover their form, Thompson, who will be in charge at Anfield for at least another month while Gérard Houllier completes his recovery from heart surgery, remarked: "That is being kind to us. We'll need at least nine playing to the top of their abilities. All our players need to be more consistent but I've said that for the last four weeks. The crux of our problem is that individuals have lost confidence and stopped doing things instinctively."

In the bleak aftermath of the defeat by West Ham which caused him to write off United's chances, Ferguson clutched at the statistic that his team had gone on spectacular victory rampages before; most notably winning 13 of their final 15 matches to burn away Newcastle's 12-point lead in 1996.

Their 3-1 defeat of Newcastle earlier this month was, however, significant in that it was the first time this season United had beaten one of the top six. The run of eight successive victories that has seen them storm to the summit of the Premiership has largely seen Ferguson's team revert to its habit of hammering mediocre sides, especially at Old Trafford.

Liverpool may be in turmoil but they are a long way short of mediocre. This is a club that has not lost to United since September 1999 when Jamie Carragher scored two own-goals and that, in Michael Owen and Nicolas Anelka, possesses players with the pace to cause havoc in a still-suspect defence.

"People should not be disrespectful to us," said Thompson. "Everybody has dropped points but we seem to be the whipping boys at the moment and need to turn draws into victories. But I can absolutely guarantee Manchester United will drop points against the top teams."

Thompson will not be short of an audience to prove his claim. When Owen tore the champions apart at Anfield in November, his goals were seen by 500m people in 152 countries. Liverpool could not ask for a grander stage to begin the fightback.

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