`Massive game' can tip title balance

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The Independent Online

The date has stuck out in the congested Premiership fixture list for months. Liverpool versus Manchester United. The requirements of satellite television have even intervened to ensure it will take place with high noon at its fulcrum.

Win and United will be confident of gaining their fourth championship in five seasons. Lose and they will still be best placed, although Liverpool and Arsenal will have renewed hope. The title is never taken or squandered in one match, it will just seem like it today.

"It's a massive game for both of us," Ferguson, United's manager, said, while Roy Evans, his Liverpool counterpart, added: "If we don't win it'll be a kick in the teeth." He went on to say his side could be defeated and still win the championship, although few would concur.

Reliable Liverpool are not. Brilliant frequently, predictable hardly ever. They might have won the title the last two seasons and yet appear likely to finish empty-handed. Even the Champions' League place for the runners-up position has been jeopardised by their failings and Arsenal's dogged persistence.

Wednesday was a perfect illustration. They should have beaten Everton but drew 1-1 and had Robbie Fowler sent off. Ferguson left Goodison early with a broad smile that no doubt grew when his car radio revealed that Liverpool had lost, after today, their most important player for the rest of the season.

Dependability was the theme of the United manager's pre-match thoughts yesterday, a quality, he said, had been forged by familiarity with these high-altitude affairs. Trips to Juventus and Porto come to mind this season, a failure and a success, although he would argue just the experience of being in these places is a plus.

"Some clubs find themselves in a situation like this," he said, "and it's all new to them, but it's nothing fresh for Manchester United. The players have proved themselves many times in situations like the one they'll face at Anfield. I trust my players, it's a case of letting them get on with it. They've got responsibilities and they'll carry them out.

"They've got ability and they can handle hostile atmospheres. Elland Road is just the same as Anfield in that respect and we did well there earlier this season, winning 4-0."

Last time these two teams met at Anfield, in December 1995, Liverpool won 2-0 and should have scored far more. That day United's central midfield consisted of Brian McClair and Lee Sharpe, a soft centre that had been replaced by Roy Keane and Nicky Butt in the FA Cup final.

United's 1-0 win at Wembley was crowned by Eric Cantona's goal but carved out by the strength and running of Butt and Keane who overwhelmed John Barnes and Jamie Redknapp, forcing them to attempt their passes from too deep. If Andy Cole had a shred of confidence then the match would have been over as a contest in the first 20 minutes.

"Butt has come back from injury and has been fantastic," Ferguson said of the England midfielder. "When others are tiring he's flying all over the place." As for Keane, he added: "He can handle 60 games a season no bother. It's like signing a fresh player every year."

If Liverpool can confine Butt and Keane without exhausting themselves, then they have ample ability to prevail today. Their problem is that they tend to tire in matches, their second-half performances rarely matching their first. It is why teams like Newcastle have come back at them and why Coventry stole three points in their last game at Anfield.

In Liverpool's favour they have a full squad to choose from which means Evans' dilemma - apart from David James' dreadful lack of confidence - will be whether to play Rob Jones at right wing-back for his defensive assuredness or Jason McAteer for his runs and crosses. Given the need to win today, McAteer will probably be chosen.

As for United, they will select their team once fitness tests have been undertaken on Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, David May and Ryan Giggs. "The team were superb against Blackburn," Ferguson said. "Anyone fit on top of that will be a bonus."

So will any lead after today's match. A United win and the strain of four games in nine days at the season's climax, which the Association confirmed yesterday, will diminish.