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Opinion: Moral victories may be the only success this season for United and Liverpool

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Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers

The Premier League campaign looks likely to be a rarity. The two most successful teams in England are destined to be relegated to bit-part players, focusing at best on a Champions League scrap.

In many ways it was a telling week for the current standing of both clubs. Liverpool put in a limp display away to Newcastle, yet again struggling to make an impression in front of goals. No team in the top half of the table has scored fewer and victory for the Magpies left the Reds 12 points behind Chelsea after just 10 games.

It wasn't much better the following day for their bitter Manchester rivals. A reckless red card for Chris Smalling was symbolic of their defensive deficiencies this term, with a gutsy finish put forward as an examples of their recent improvement in performance.

Sergio Aguero's strike was the difference ultimately, though three stonewall penalties waved away by referee Michael Oliver might have put a different complexion on the scoreline. It left Louis Van Gaal with only half the tally of the London table-toppers from Stamford Bridge. Paul Lambert has overseen as many wins at struggling Aston Villa as the experienced Dutchman.

Curiously, Brendan Rodgers decided to leave a whole host of big names out for their midweek Spanish examination. Steven Gerrard, Mario Balotelli and Dejan Lovren have struggled for form this season, but would have expected to face down the Galacticos. Raheem Sterling's invention, even if it has been absent in recent weeks, was not going to play a part from the outset while Jordan Henderson too missed the opportunity to pit his wits in the grandest arenas of them all.

Rodgers won the battle – keeping the score at 1-0 was already a big improvement on the Anfield humbling – but he may be losing the battle.

"Selecting a weakened side in Europe's premier competition, especially against Real Madrid, is unbefitting of a club of Liverpool's stature," Gary Lineker tweeted. Rodgers responded by pointing out that the BBC host wasn't a manager so "does not understand what it’s like to have to pick a team."

By the same logic, Rodgers is incapable of appreciating that Lazar Markovic, Javi Manquillo, Mario Balotelli and Emre Can are not the standard of player Liverpool require to push on as he himself never played at the highest level.

Paul Hayward summed up the mood most succintly. "Anfield will not feel happy again until Liverpool can send a first XI here with the aim of winning. Deference and damage limitation does not suit them."

A victory, or even a draw at Chelsea at the weekend, may vindicate Rodgers' bold decision, but something doesn't sit right when the second most successful side in the European Cup puts out a weakened side against Real Madrid, especially with a five day gap until the showdown with Mourinho's charges. Can Liverpool afford to treat Europe's premier competition like the League Cup?

Louis Van Gaal cannot escape question marks hanging over his moves in the transfer market. Unlike his Liverpool counterpart, he has spent big on quality. Falcao was one of the most coveted strikers around while Angel Di Maria is looking the part of his £59.7m fee at these early stages, while Luke Shaw was one of the most exciting full-backs in Europe last season. Ander Herrera was a done deal already while Marcos Rojo brings World Cup experience.

However the defensive issues that currently engulf the club are largely of his own doing. Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra waved goodbye after glittering success at Old Trafford and they have simply not been replaced. Rafael may never cut the mustard at full-back, while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are not convincing if indeed they are playing for their United futures. Jonny Evans' continued absence couldn't have happened at a worse time.

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Chris Smalling reacts to being sent off in the Manchester derby

Chris Smalling reacts to being sent off in the Manchester derby

Chris Smalling reacts to being sent off in the Manchester derby

 

Is it better to shell out over the odds on a defender, such as £20m Lovren, or try to hold out until the end of the season with what you have? Right now, neither policy appears to be having the desired effect.

The Red Devils need at least one and probably two central defenders of real quality if they are to halt last season's slide. Van Gaal was the man that turned up to the party with his finest threads but inexplicably forgot his trousers.

Liverpool travel to Dean Court before Christmas in the quarter-final of the League Cup, the competition that appears to offer the best chance of silverware. Sandwiched in between fixtures at Old Trafford and the visit of Arsenal, Rodgers may again adopt his 'Real Madrid' rotation policy. United for their part may look towards the FA Cup for tangible success, but both sides are in new territory.

The great rivalry between both sides has occurred when one was leading the way in England, and often in Europe too. Both sets of supporters will take glee from the plight of the other, but what is galling for both is that most are also-rans for the premier League. The Reds have just lost three successive games for the first time ever, while the Red Devils are not even among the continent's elite.

Liverpool lost away to the best team in Europe, while United lost to the current Premier League champions and Chelsea's main rivals for the title. Both can point to moral victories of sorts in light of previous performances and the nature of the respective tasks, but that in itself points illustrates the place that these two football giants occupy in the football landscape.

Online Editors