No game bigger than Liverpool for old sage Ferguson
This is The One, the game in a league of its own, an enduring passion play first scripted by gaslight in the Victorian era.
"It is the fixture,'' stressed Alex Ferguson yesterday as he spoke of a 115-year-old conflict. "There is no doubt about that.''
For those who view football life through a Premier League prism, Manchester United versus Liverpool should not still be the fixture.
United games with Chelsea carry more modern significance. United confrontations with Arsenal have shimmered with more Premier League meaning over the past 12 years.
Yet none of these match-ups carries the history that so quickens the pulse and so quickly cancels all police leave. None of these fixtures has such previous. None of these events is so peppered with chants that spring from broken sewers, such incidents as fans rocking the ambulance of an injured opponent or the squally microclimate that is Gary Neville when Liverpool are around.
For all the noises off, there is plenty of magnificent sporting combat to shout about. This is the fixture of Fernando Torres versus Nemanja Vidic, Steven Gerrard against Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney against Jamie Carragher and the travelling Kop choir.
It is a reminder of history, of United's 18 championships against Liverpool's 18.
"It's two great teams, historically the two most successful teams in Britain,'' reflected Ferguson. So many angles. TV angles too. A lunchtime kick-off suits the forces of law and order and the Far East, the match being beamed into 580 million homes across 211 territories.
They love the colour, the history. Rarely do managers' pre-match briefings contain references to the Industrial Revolution, but Ferguson acknowledged 19th Century ghosts inside the 21st Century machine.
"Historically, it's always been that way,'' Ferguson reflected of the East Lancs Road rivalry. "It has always been a competition between Liverpool and Manchester since the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal.''
The currents are not all pernicious. Ferguson was the first on the phone to Kenny Dalglish after Hillsborough. A bottle of good wine awaits Roy Hodgson, a manager much admired by Ferguson, who rarely concealed his lack of respect for Rafael Benitez.
United's manager rankled at the idea that it had ever been "personal'' between him and Benitez. "I must correct you right away there, I've never been personal,'' countered Ferguson, talking at Carrington yesterday morning.
"You have to examine him (Benitez), not me. I've always enjoyed a good relationship with the Liverpool managers and both clubs have always addressed the situation properly after games. That changed under the last regime.''
He did have one final barb for Benitez. "In the last regime they spent a lot of money on players, far more than Manchester United did. They had a huge squad of players.''
After Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier and Benitez, Hodgson is the sixth Liverpool manager Ferguson has faced during his 24 years at Old Trafford.
"I'm still here!'' smiled Ferguson. "I've known Roy a long time. We first met in 1987 at Malmo, when they abandoned the game after one minute. It was a European tie against Ajax and he was at the game and we went to dinner. Roy's gathered a wealth of experience in Italy, Switzerland, Finland and Scandinavia and the job he did at Fulham was extraordinary.''
Tomorrow, Hodgson restores Torres, Gerrard and Carragher following their evening off against Steaua Bucharest. Torres has a knack of scoring against United. Another will make him the first Liverpool player since Dick Forshaw in 1927 to score against United in four consecutive league games.
Ferguson did not feel that Torres had some Indian sign over his defence. "I don't see that. When you analyse all the goals, we've maybe made a couple of mistakes defensively.''
Vidic seems particularly spooked by Torres. Ferguson indicated that the Serbian would remain captain, despite Rio Ferdinand's return from his latest injury travails. "Vidic has been given the captain's armband because he has been available all the time,'' stressed Ferguson, adding praise for Ferdinand. "If I choose him on Sunday it is because he is an outstanding player.''
Dimitar Berbatov definitely starts in support of Wayne Rooney. The Bulgarian has had to deal with plenty of criticism, but now seems comfortable at Old Trafford. "Not everyone's questioned him,'' said Ferguson. "He has a lot of admirers, particularly at this club. When we buy a player for a lot of money (£30m) there's more focus on him and if they have a bad game, they get criticism that other players would not get.
"He's had some terrific games for us, marvellous games, and I told him to dismiss the press. I think he worried about himself, but he's expressed himself very well this season, he's enjoying his football and he'll play on Sunday.''
In opposition will be Joe Cole, who briefly crossed United's radar in the summer. "We were approached by his agent at one point, but we didn't enter into it (discussions) at all. It was maybe just complicated to get involved in that.''
Cole scored here for Chelsea last season, effectively ending United's title hopes. With Chelsea enjoying what Ferguson described as "a very easy start to the season'', United cannot afford any more slips like the lost leads at Fulham and Everton.
"We have to address that, because making silly mistakes like that can cost you. Hopefully, it doesn't this year. It may be the final lesson for us in terms of the players' concentration.''
There's no hiding place in the fixture. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Manchester Utd v Liverpool
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