Ferguson fears the 'Anfield factor'
The Manchester derby is just over a week away, but it will have to wait a little longer before it supplants this afternoon's encounter at Anfield. To Alex Ferguson, there is no game bigger than Liverpool v Manchester United, not even when Real Madrid face Barcelona.
"You know the difference," said Ferguson. "Barcelona is at one end of the country and Madrid is at the other. Fans don't travel. Please. It is hard to rival this. The only game that can rival Manchester United-Liverpool is Rangers-Celtic. In fact, it doesn't rival it, it beats it. The Rangers-Celtic game is different."
All three are underpinned by factors other than football. In Spain it is language and politics, in Glasgow religion and in this corner of Lancashire industrial rivalry. Liverpool was where the cotton came in, usually from the slave states of America, and Manchester was where it was processed.
"It goes back to how industry changed here when they opened the Manchester Ship Canal (to bypass the Mersey tolls)," said the United manager. "It affected the history of both cities. Although things may change in the next two or three years with Manchester City, I've always considered Manchester United v Liverpool to be the game of the season in English football and, at the moment, it remains that.
"It is never going to change. Both clubs need each other, to be honest with you. Their history should be appreciated by both sets of fans. Sometimes, when I hear silly chants about Munich or Hillsborough, I don't think it does either club any good at all because without each other it would not be the English league."
Ferguson's record against Liverpool runs in three distinct phases. Before the Premier League breakaway, when Anfield was the epicentre of English football, United ran a fairly successful guerrilla war against Liverpool, losing four out of 14 fixtures.
Then came a long, almost unbroken period of dominance -- between 1995 and 2000 Liverpool did not win a single match.
Now there is equality, of sorts; Liverpool have won more than half their games against Manchester United since the millennium while rarely suggesting they possessed resources to match them over a season.
Nevertheless, Ferguson conceded that on the last three occasions his sides had gone to Anfield, they had been outfought. "Is there an Anfield factor? There is no doubt about that," he said. "In my time we have had nine players sent off, which is unusual for Manchester United. That is all down to the atmosphere that can be created at Anfield. Their support has been fantastic, it has got them going.
"They have fought for every ball. Although we have played well in parts (in recent seasons), we have made really crucial mistakes, which is unusual for us. We can't afford that this time, we just can't."
Ferguson will be debating whether to lean on the experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence.
Neither enjoyed the international break. Vidic, who has not played for United since the opening game of the season, missed a penalty for Serbia in a 1-0 defeat against Slovenia that denied them a place in the Euro 2012 play-offs. Ferdinand was not picked for England's draw in Montenegro.
"Maybe Fabio Capello is looking to the future," said Ferguson. "Rio is 32. That may just be the reason. Some managers think that way and there is nothing wrong with that, looking to the future. Evans, Jones and Smalling have been outstanding so Rio and Vidic are well aware they are going to have to play well to keep their places." (© Independent News Service)