Manchester United travel to Merseyside on Saturday for a lunchtime clash with bitter rival Liverpool FC at Anfield. This fixture is always eagerly anticipated by both groups of supporters -- it's also a derby that draws attention worldwide. Last season in this same fixture, a Dirk Kuyt hat-trick helped lead Liverpool to a 3-1 victory. In two prior meetings during the same season, United bettered their rival with a 3-2 league victory -- which included a Dimitar Berbatov hat-trick -- and with a 1-0 FA Cup Round 3 victory. On a grander scale, United trumped Liverpool last season by winning their 19th league title in England's top flight -- one better than Liverpool.
United enter the match top of the table by goal differential in the English Premier League while having only dropped two points from seven matches. Things haven't gone as smoothly in Europe though as the Reds have only earned two points after two group-stage ties in the UEFA Champions League. A satisfying victory was earned over old rival Leeds United last month during a Carling Cup clash at Elland Road. When FA Cup matches begin, United may soon be doing battle on four different fronts.
Perhaps the biggest concern to United is their health. Captain Nemanja Vidic may return from his injury lay-off on Saturday to help shore up a defense that has become increasingly leaky as of late. He went the full 90 minutes on Tuesday for Serbia in a Euro 2012 qualifier. Tom Cleverley is close to returning as well from an ankle injury -- but even if he were cleared to play, his fitness and sharpness would be a concern for such an important tie. Chris Smalling missed matches prior to the recent international break and his status is uncertain. Darren Fletcher had some sort of illness during the international break -- no indication that this is related to the mysterious virus that caused a lengthy lay-off for him recently -- but he able to play in a Euro 2012 qualifier for Scotland during the midweek. Rafael continues to be out with a long-term shoulder injury and Anders Lindegaard appears to unavailable due to an ankle injury. Fabio also received a knock while on duty with Brazil last week and his status is uncertain.
Liverpool currently sit 5th in the table with 13 points through seven matches. They are not competing in Europe this season and their clear objective is to earn qualification into next season's Champions League competition. In the Carling Cup, Liverpool has advanced to Round 4 after a 1-3 away defeat of Exeter City and a 1-2 away defeat of Brighton. They will next face Stoke City at the Britannia.
The home side for this match mostly has a clean bill of health. Daniel Agger has recently been recovering from a rib injury but he is expected to be available for selection on Saturday. Glen Johnson has a hamstring issue but all indications are that he is nearing full health.
Because of the uncertainly in regards to injury with United, projecting a lineup may be a futile task. In addition, manager Sir Alex Ferguson may -- or may not-- deviate away from a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 shape and use a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. In goal, the choice of David De Gea is clear. In defense, Patrice Evra will start at left-back but the other spots are uncertain. Perhaps the experienced duo Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are the most likely choice at center-back, but Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, and Chris Smalling are all candidates as well. At right-back, Phil Jones appears to be the most likely deployed but Smalling and Antonio Valencia are possibilities. In central midfield, Anderson probably starts and he could be partnered by either Fletcher or Michael Carrick -- Cleverley and Ryan Giggs are less likely candidates to partner Ando. If United play in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape, Giggsy is a candidate to start as the central-attacking-midfielder ahead of Ando and his partner. On the flanks, Nani is almost certain to start on the right while the in-form Ashley Young appears to be the choice on the left. Park Ji-sung typically plays in "big matches" so he is a possibility as well in the midfield. Up front, Wayne Rooney will start and his most probable partner is either Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) or Danny Welbeck.
For Liverpool, manager Kenny Dalglish will decide whether to use a single player up top or a duo. In goal, Pepe Reina is the clear No 1 and the center-backs will likely be Agger and Jamie Carragher -- if Agger is unable to start, then Martin Skrtel would deputise. Jose Enrique will be the left-back and either Martin Kelly or Johnson will be the right-back. Expect Lucas as the holding midfielder. If Dalglish elects to use two players up front, then Steven Gerrard likely partners Lucas in the center of the park. If Dalglish elects to use a lone striker, then Charlie Adam likely partners Lucas with Gerrard ahead of them. On the flanks, Stewart Downing is nearly certain to be the left-winger while Dirk Kuyt appears to be the most likely candidate on the right in a narrow role -- the latter role could also be played by Jordan Henderson. Luis Suarez will start and if he has a partner up top, it will probably be Andy Carroll.
* Full-back track back: In recent matches, United's full-backs have been prone to being caught out -- especially against the counter-attack. The problem is magnified because United have not been using a true holding-midfielder to cover the marauding runs by the full-backs. This is somewhat understandable with the relatively inexperienced Fabio and with Valencia playing out of position at right-back, but this is alarming with the experienced -- and (formerly?) world-class regarded-- Evra. It is more likely that Jones, or even Smalling if he is fit, starts at right-back and each will need to be aware of Liverpool's left flank. Downing may not have Usain Bolt sort of pace but he is a very dangerous winger -- and he's well supported by Enrique who does well to get forward.
Liverpool will have similar concerns with their full-backs. Both Nani and Young are in fine form and they -- along with Rooney -- have been the creative forces in United's attack this season. Enrique may have been the most astute piece of business that Liverpool did this past summer but he is vulnerable to being caught out of position when he makes his surging runs forward in support of the attack. If they use Johnson at right-back, he is even more likely to have the ball played in behind him for Young, Rooney, or Chicharito to run onto. It is perhaps these areas of the pitch that will be the genesis of the most goal-scoring chances at Anfield.
*Between the lines: If it sounds like I continually mention this -- well, that's because I continually mention this. Because United typically does not play with a true holding player, they are vulnerable in the space between the lines. Last season, the likes of Arsenal (at the Emirates), Liverpool (in this fixture), and FC Barcelona tore United apart in this space. In Liverpool's instance, it was Suarez that continually slipped defenders to find space here -- this then caused United to have defenders dragged out of position and a few quick touches along with intelligent movement resulted in United being torched for 3 goals at Anfield.
Another reason why this is discussed so much is because this is the same space that Rooney does much of his damage from. When partnered with Chicharito, Wazza often drops deep into the space between the lines -- while his partners stays high and uses the threat of his pace to create even more space underneath -- and creates goal-scoring chances with his incisive distribution and deadly finishing ability. His natural foil in this match will be Lucas. However, Rooney generally does well to slip his marker for pockets of space -- only a sliver of that space is needed for him to be United's talisman.
* Pressing Liverpool's central midfield: When Liverpool build the attack from the back, the defenders often look for the deep-lying Lucas. From there, the Brazilian is generally tidy with his distribution and mostly looks for the safe pass -- swinging it wide or to Adam who is slightly more advanced in the center. From there, Adam looks to link the midfield with attack by either playing long diagonal balls to the wingers or incisive though balls for attackers through the channels. It's possible that Ferguson uses Fletcher alongside Anderson so that he has two energetic midfielders that are capable of closing down their counterparts -- thus, the distribution is disrupted. Adam in particular is prone to be loose with his passing when defenders constantly close him and don't offer him enough time on the ball. If United can successfully do this, Liverpool may become frustrated and simply resort to hoofing the ball long from the back. If Suarez starts as the lone man up top without Carroll, then Liverpool will struggle to maintain possession without a target man as an outlet. More importantly, they would struggle to consistently create goal-scoring situations.
Odds: Liverpool 7/4, Draw 12/5, Manchester United 7/5
Liverpool's site: Anfield Asylum
Q&A (Liverpool perspective): TBB with Anfield Asylum