Robin van Persie will start on Sunday versus Liverpool, that's a given. Who, though, will start alongside the talisman as his main partner in attack? With the assumption that Wayne Rooney is unavailable this weekend*, that likely means manager Sir Alex Ferguson will choose from either Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) or Shinji Kagawa in a probable 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish system.
* It's certainly possible that Wazza could make an unexpected return from injury in time for Sunday's match. Ferguson's injury updates are about as reliable as Mayan predictions.
After a somewhat slow start to the season, Chicharito has been in fine form since late October. Overall, he has bagged 12 goals from 22 appearances (13 starts) in all competitions. 11 of those goals have come from his past 14 appearances (10 starts). His finishing this season has been as efficient as his impressive 2010/11 debut one at Old Trafford:
* 2010/11 -- 45 appearances (27 starts), 20 goals, 79 shot attempts (39 on target)
* 2012/13 -- 22 appearances (13 starts), 12 goals, 50 shot attempts (27 on target)
While most are aware that Chicharito is a lethal finisher in the box, his overall game has shown improvement as well. This is perhaps tangibly evident by the 4 assists he's provided this season and in comparison, he only had 5 assists from both his initial two seasons as a Manchester United player. One of these assists this season, last weekend versus West Ham United in a FA Cup tie at Upton Park, came from intelligent movement outside the box. United were playing in a narrow diamond shape during the first-half and Chicharito did well to move into the available space out wide to the right in the attacking third before crossing for Tom Cleverley's opening-goal. This overall ability, both the moment outside the box and the delivery, is arguably something he wouldn't have been able to provide just a season ago.
If partnered with van Persie, the Mexican international would sit on the shoulder of Liverpool's last defender and he would try to create space underneath for the Dutchman. Chicharito would be the No.9 while van Persie might be the actual 'nine-and-a-half' that he fancies himself as. Make no mistake, van Persie is a No.9 when partnered by any of Rooney, Kagawa, or Danny Welbeck but when partnered with Chicharito, he drops deeper into a playmaker's sort of role -- not quite as a No.10 so 'nine-and-a-half' might be a fitting description.
If Kagawa starts, then he'll be in a No.10 role while van Persie will be the No.9. The Japanese international has yet to find his footing at Old Trafford but it's clearly not down to a lack of talent -- anybody who saw him perform as a key figure in Borussia Dortmund's Bundesliga titles these past two seasons can attest to that. Injuries have certainly played their part in Kagawa's struggles as he has already missed over two months of the season because of his knee. In addition, it's clear that he hasn't been consistently used in the right fashion.
Liverpool are a possession-based side and even though Sunday's contest is at the 'Theatre of Dreams', Brendan Rodgers will hope that his side can keep the ball. United, too, tend to dominate possession against most sides but they are versatile and they can be pragmatic when needed. When Ferguson feels that it's prudent, he can instruct his side to play in a counterattacking 4-4-1-1 system. This scenario would suit the Japanese attacker just fine.
Dortmund were a side that tirelessly worked to win back the ball. When they were successful at this, their transitions were phenomenally rapid and it was Kagawa that often took up clever positions to receive in while he also quickly combined with fellow attackers in dangerous areas. We saw glimpses of this early in the season, particularly when the big-haired Marouane Felliani and his fellow Everton teammates put United on the back foot at Goodison Park. The Japanese star was the lone shining light that night from a United perspective.
Against Liverpool, I feel that starting Kagawa alongside van Persie would be Ferguson's best move. These battles between the two long time rivals are typically contentious and it may take awhile for either side to get a grip of the game. Kagawa doesn't appear comfortable yet when United build-up (slowly at times) with multiple passes in succession. Against Liverpool, the Red Devils may not get comfortable enough -- especially early in the match -- to continually build these sort of attacking moves. Kagawa might be the man to spark quick breaks during a scrappy affair.
Another factor for Ferguson to consider is Lucas Leiva. Prior to the Brazilian's terrible run of recent injuries, he was arguably the best in the world at breaking up play in the space between the lines. He even did this in a solo role and without the assistance of a partner in a double-pivot. If Chichartio were to start alongside van Persie, the latter would continually find himself encountering Lucas. The United manager might want to avoid this, at least from the start.
Kagawa, if chosen to start, would also find himself up against Lucas. If he were to struggle, this would keep United's current match-winner, van Persie, away from the Liverpool defensive-midfielder. If Kagawa, though, were to thrive in such an important tie, then maybe this could help ignite his Old Trafford career. Chicharito would always be available to come on and make an impact as a substitute again. Of his 11 goals this season, 4 have come from a substitute's role.