Man Utd Focus - Is the Liverpool fixture lessening in importance?
Liverpool have been in dramatic decline since only losing two Premier League games and finishing second to Manchester United in the 2008/09 campaign, sitting 21 points behind the league leaders after 21 games this time around. As Old Trafford gears up for one of the highlights of its season on Sunday, has the significance of one of English football's greatest rivalries dwindled?
In the intermittent time, Sir Alex Ferguson's side has surpassed Liverpool's previous record of 18 league championships, and have consistently mounted sustained title challenges. Meanwhile the Merseysiders have struggled under Rafael Benitez, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, claiming a seventh, sixth and eighth place finish in the last three seasons. Brendan Rodgers has also disappointed in respect of the points haul he has delivered so far, but there have been signs of improvement under the Northern Irishman.
Despite this degeneration at Anfield, senior figures at United such as Paul Scholes have spoken of the clash between the country's two most decorated clubs still retaining the meaning and significance of old. The veteran midfielder said that: “Liverpool, historically, are our biggest rivals. Games against them are always the biggest games and the best atmospheres.”
There could be the temptation to look at the words of United's veterans as a veiled insult to neighbours Manchester City, but there is little doubt that for players of Scholes' generation the fixtures with Liverpool have been the most highly charged of their careers. There is however the danger that if the Anfield side continue to languish towards the middle of the table, the significance to the clashes could diminish.
This has already been seen in United's rivalry with Arsenal, which was fierce and volatile in the 1990s and first part of the 2000s. Recent years have seen much less explosive encounters, with the Manchester club a dominant force - underlined by last season's 8-2 mauling of Arsene Wenger's team. Arsenal have won only one of the last seven encounters between the sides, with United claiming victory in all the other games, in addition to knocking the Londoners out of both the Champions League and FA Cup in recent seasons.
The rivalry with Arsenal was built on the strength of competition on each side, in a similar vein to the explosion of conflict with City thanks to their newfound status. The impact of this could further lessen the significance of United's encounters with Liverpool.
However, in the tribal battleground that is the footballing arena, it is perhaps not possible for United's supporters to despise their local rivals as much as their bitter foes from the other end of the M62. The hostility between Mancunians and Scousers dates back to the late 19th century and the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, an undertaking that brought mass unemployment and poverty to Liverpool. It is easier to harbour deep-rooted feelings of aversion to the Merseysiders than your mates down the local, whose family has been brought up Blue instead of Red.
The inherent discord between the cities will ensure that North West derbies will always be a huge fixture in the football calendar. United and Liverpool are two of the world's most decorated football clubs, both with a rich tapestry of history upon which to continue to inscribe. Yet the Merseyside club must improve their current standing within the English game in order that the importance of the clash does not become unduly damaged.
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