Thursday 23 November 2017

Fading empires of Liverpool and Manchester United collide in red corner

Liverpool v United no longer a clash of titans as old enemies seek to recreate former glories

For all the hype, the reality is that Louis Van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers are in charge of faded empires
For all the hype, the reality is that Louis Van Gaal and Brendan Rodgers are in charge of faded empires

Mark Ogden

It's a game which requires no hype or overselling, but the Sky Sports trailer for the match on Saturday evening between Manchester United and Liverpool actually issues a perfect reminder of what this fixture means, in Manchester, England and across the globe.

Images of Roy Keane and Graeme Souness, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, Eric Cantona and Steven Gerrard, intertwined with flashes of the Cavern Club and the Hacienda, the Stone Roses and the Beatles.

In both a sporting and cultural sense, United versus Liverpool is what the trailer suggests - those were the days and all that, and here are the trophies to prove it.

It is all our yesterdays, straight from the opening credits of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, but as English football's two most celebrated clubs collide at Old Trafford, whatever happened to the likely lads is a pertinent question with an unsatisfactory answer.

It may still be the biggest game in the Premier League, the one which generates early-morning alarm calls in Tokyo and Bangkok, but it is no longer the stage for the Premier League's leading players.

David de Gea's anticipated return to action for United this weekend, following the collapse of his transfer to Real Madrid, will at least ensure one player on the pitch can lay claim to a place in a any realistic Premier League XI.

But where are the Keanes and Sounesses, the Dalglishes and Scholeses or the Hansens and Ferdinands who once made this fixture the clash of the titans which it continues to be billed as, despite the reality that Chelsea versus Manchester City will once again be the most significant fixture in terms of deciding the title this season?

United versus Liverpool now feels like two fading empires, battling to prop up the currency of their glorious histories while emerging forces threaten, as the United fans' banner states, to make history, not live in it.


The failure of United to cope with the aftershocks following Alex Ferguson's retirement in May 2013 is now becoming evident, with Louis van Gaal taking the club's post-Ferguson spending beyond £300million during the summer transfer window.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have seen the feel-good factor and confidence from their title near-miss 18 months ago evaporate in tandem with the sales of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling and the departure of Steven Gerrard.

United, who made Monaco's Anthony Martial, aged 19, the most expensive teenager in football by investing £36million in him, have been unable to sustain Ferguson's success, while Liverpool's title drought now stands at 25 years due to the player acquisition mistakes made in the early-Nineties, which now appear to be being repeated at Old Trafford.

And as such, it has come to this. A meeting between English football's undisputed global superpowers, with a cast list of players who, De Gea aside - and perhaps Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian - would struggle to break into the first team at City or Chelsea.

James Milner left City for Liverpool in order to secure the first-team football he could not be guaranteed at the Etihad Stadium, while the likes of Christian Benteke, Roberto Firmino, Danny Ings and Nathaniel Clyne all arrived on Merseyside this summer without so much as passing interest from east Manchester or west London.

Similarly, while New York City FC explored a move for Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Germany captain checked in at Old Trafford with no counter offer from their sister club in Manchester.

United possess the financial muscle to spend their way back to the top, a privilege that Liverpool cannot boast, but the global popularity of the two clubs is what continues to place them beyond the reach of their domestic rivals. When Liverpool played in front of 90,000 supporters at the Melbourne Cricket Ground two summers ago, it offered proof of their ability to continue to draw a crowd, despite their lengthy wait for title success.

And the 109,000 fans who set a record for a soccer crowd in the United States by turning out to watch United face Real Madrid in Michigan last year were largely sporting red shirts rather than white ones.

History is United's and Liverpool's shared trump card, but both are making faltering steps in their attempts to recreate their glory days.

Wayne Rooney's 10-game Premier League goal drought with United hints at the 29-year-old's fading powers and Van Gaal's failure to recruit an experienced, proven goalscorer to share the burden has compromised the team's ability to challenge for the title.

Where City possess Sergio Aguero and Chelsea boast Diego Costa, United are now relying too heavily on Rooney and they lack the Ruud van Nistelrooy figure or, Dwight Yorke-Andy Cole partnership, which once gave the club a fearsome attacking edge.

Liverpool have failed to reinvest successfully, and sensibly, the £75million they received from Barcelona for Suarez and they were also unable to repel City's advances when they came calling for Sterling this summer.

With Chelsea, and Arsenal, exploiting the pull of London to prospective new signings - Alexis Sanchez chose the Emirates Stadium over Anfield for this reason - and City offering stability, money and a shot at success to transfer targets, neither Liverpool nor United are able to dominate the market as they once did.

United could not attract Gareth Bale, Thomas Mueller or Karim Benzema, and Liverpool could not keep Suarez or Sterling.

De Gea's aborted move to Real prevented United from losing their player of the year for the past two seasons, but nobody at Old Trafford expects him to stay when his contract expires in the summer, and his eventual departure will merely be another case of Real getting what they want.

City, in contrast, have ensured that transfer speculation surrounding Aguero has been turned down to mute with the club making it clear, publicly and privately, that not even the biggest rivals can bully them into a sale.

Chelsea, also, do not lose players regarded as crucial to the team's progression.

De Gea, it seems, is ready to eschew the malcontent approach at United which preceded the sales of Suarez and Sterling at Liverpool, the goalkeeper insisting he is fit and ready to play for United.

A United victory against Liverpool, with De Gea performing well, would help to renew confidence at Old Trafford following a slow start to the campaign and first defeat of the season, at Swansea two weeks ago.

© Daily Telegraph, London.

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