Turning of the red tide as Rafa changes course

Man Utd v Liverpool: Benitez rewarded for tackling attitude problem
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The Independent Football

Whisper it, at least within hearing of Sir Alex Ferguson, but the wheel of football fortune that spins between the two great cities of North-west England might just be turning again. For an extraordinarily extended period between 1969 and 1991 Manchester United did not once manage to finish above Liverpool in the old Football League. That run encompassed the first five seasons after Ferguson's arrival from Aberdeen on a mission, he recalled on Friday, to resurrect Mancunian supremacy. Slowly he did so, and since 1992 the boot has regularly been on the other foot: only once in the past 14 years have Liverpool had the best of it, in terms of League position.

Last May, of course, finishing fifth to United's third place, almost 20 points behind, was rendered academic to their followers by the astounding events of That Night In Istanbul, which means that the triumphalist banners at Old Trafford's away end when the teams meet again this afternoon will be decorated with five European Cups.

Robbie Fowler - you can take the scally out of Liverpool, but not Liverpool out of the scally - was making the same point when he held up five fingers to United supporters after scoring for Manchester City against them last weekend. And waving images of the big-eared trophy around today will also serve to remind the locals that only one of the two clubs are still in this season's Champions' League.

Now the question is whether that wheel is ready to settle at the western end of the East Lancs Road once more. There is no doubt about which way it has been moving these past few months. Towards the end of October, an abject 2-0 defeat by Fulham left Rafael Benitez furious and publicly criticising an "attitude problem". His team had won two Premiership games all season, were 13th in the table and about to go out of the Carling Cup to Crystal Palace. "Benitez bid to create Anfield dynasty in danger of collapse", read one of the kinder headlines.

Yet since then they have been unbeatable, winning 11 League games and drawing the other, as well as topping their Champions' League group. What was once a seven-point deficit on United has been cut to a single one, so that victory this afternoon would carry them into second place, still with two games in hand on their rivals.

In the next month they will catch up with those two matches, away to Charlton (8 February, FA Cup replays permitting) and at home to Arsenal (14 February). There is also the little matter of a visit to Chelsea, for which today's encounter may be considered useful preparation, and a resumption of European competition against Benfica.

But try catching Benitez even contemplating more than one match at a time. "We have a difficult month with a lot of important games, and we'll see if the squad and the team are good enough," was as far as he would go. "I'm not thinking ahead of United, I just want to see my team improve every day."

Individuals are doing so and helping team-strength in consequence, none more so than the once reviled Harry Kewell, whose spectacular goal against Tottenham last week shocked those supporters who had booed him off the pitch in Istanbul and justified the manager's gentle touch with him. "Last season I was thinking how to do it [handle him]," Benitez said. "Sometimes you put a player under pressure and sometimes you support him. I tried to support him. To score a goal like that in front of the Kop is very good for us and for him. Now he is confident and happy; you can see him in every training session trying things he wouldn't before."

For all the likeable Spaniard's occasional histrionics on the touchline, it is easy to accept that putting an arm round a player comes more naturally to him than bawling one out. More animated he may be than Sphinx-Goran Eriksson, but his philosophy of football is essentially cerebral: "You know you must be calm, you can't play only with passion. I try to analyse calmly before, during and after a game. You need to play with your heart but also your brain."

Not since his time in charge of Real Madrid's Under-19s can Benitez remember kicking anything in the dressing room. His opposite number at Manchester United did not even manage to count as far as two before abusing the referee at half-time last week, though he has always got on well with Liverpool's managers and is pleasantly surprised at how (comparatively) decorous matches between the clubs have been. "When I first came down here they were quite meaty games then, with people like Norman Whiteside and Steve McMahon playing," Ferguson said. "The amazing thing to my mind is that since the Premiership started, I can't think of a game that's really got out of hand. It's always the game I look forward to the most. It reflects my reason for being here. I knew what I had to do when I came here. The challenge was Liverpool and we did it. For me it's got a special significance."

Like Benitez, he is well up on the history of his club: "For a few years they had the upper hand and for a few years we did. Last time the 0-0 draw [at Anfield in September] broke a sequence of wins against them. But every club has cycles. Liverpool's spell in the 70s and early 80s was phenomenal and we've had a phenomenal spell ourselves. It does go in cycles that way. It's 16 years since they won the League and we went 26 years."

Hence the importance to United - who, like Liverpool, are not going to be champions of England this season - of the two midweek matches bookending today's meeting. Four days ago they strolled to victory at the second attempt against Burton Albion in the FA Cup with a young side augmented by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who may yet earn a new contract at 33 after knee injuries had threatened his career. This Wednesday there will be no liberties like Rio Ferdinand ambling around in midfield or Louis Saha casually frittering away chances when Blackburn Rovers arrive for the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final.

It may only be the unfashionable old League Cup, the Alan Hardaker Memorial Bauble. But it is a trophy. "There's tremendous pressure on Liverpool and ourselves when you don't win trophies," Ferguson admitted, 20 months on from his last one. Now the wheel is spinning again. And, as Dylan put it more than 40 years ago, around the time Bill Shankly was gearing up the Anfield Reds, there's no telling who it is naming.

Replay 1990: When Liverpool were last kings

Victory at Old Trafford on 18 March was a significant step along the way to Liverpool's 18th - and most recent - title.

Graham Taylor's Aston Villa emerged as their strongest challengers, going top on Saturday, 17 March, with their ninth win in 11 games, as Ian Ormondroyd scored the only goal at Derby. With United in mid-table for the third time in four seasons under Alex Ferguson, questions were being asked about the manager, who was widely, if incorrectly, believed to have been facing the sack had they lost to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round. Average crowds at Old Trafford were below 40,000, though 46,629 turned out to see Liverpool win 2-1 after leading 1-0 at half-time. John Barnes scored both their goals in his finest game of the season, one a penalty; Ronnie Whelan put through his own goal at the other end. Kenny Dalglish's side went on to finish nine points ahead of Villa. United finished no higher than 13th, but won the FA Cup final in a replay against Crystal Palace to give Ferguson his first trophy and some breathing space.

Manchester Utd: Bailey; Anderson (Duxbury), Bruce, Pallister, Martin; Blackmore, Ince, Phelan; McClair, Hughes, Wallace (Beardsmore).

Liverpool: Grobbelaar; Venison, Hysen, Hansen, Staunton; Houghton, McMahon, Whelan, Barnes; Beardsley, Rush.