Friday, February 17, 2006

United's Greater Need to Tell

Football's rulebook has unfortunately diluted the potential pantomime factor for tomorrow's Liverpool v Manchester United FA Cup Fifth Round tie. Imagine the fun the opposing supporters would have had, had their already robust mutual loathing been cheerled by Scouse-hater extraordinaire Gary Neville on one side and arch-scally and former City boy Robbie Fowler on the other...

As it is, due to Fowler being cup-tied, Neville alone carries the flame for hiss-boo tribal villainry, a part which he his only too delighted to play. As much as Neville can appear a ridiculous character when he allows himself to be drawn into the kind of lurid conflict with Liverpool fans which we saw at the end of the recent league fixture at Old Trafford, his obvious passion for United and empathy with the club's supporters are still quite endearing, and refreshing, in today's game.

However, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor's claim that most rival supporters held a "grudging respect" for Neville would not gain much credence in the surrounds of Anfield tomorrow morning, when the United captain's name will be inserted into several ditties which will, no doubt, fail to reveal Liverpool fans' "respect" for the man.

Whoever the participants, English football's premier fixture needs no extra subplots to sharpen its fervour. However, the fact that the two clubs have seemingly cemented themselves as the country's Second Tier means that any league and Cup battles between the two have special relevance, aside from north-west bragging rights in purely footballing terms. United and Liverpool are obviously flawed in comparison with the Chelsea machine above them, but remain more complete than the works-in-progress, or in Arsenal's case, fading forces, who lie beneath them.

For all that, there is no doubt that United's need is greater. Liverpool will anticipate the impending resumption of their Champions League campaign with some relish, retaining as they do the solidity of last season coupled with a greater fluidity in midfield, and a favourable draw against Benfica. A lack of striking explosiveness remains their one achilles heel, but they have already proved, as Porto did before them, that that is not a prerequisite for winning in Europe.

United on the other hand will crave the FA Cup. The Carling Cup final awaits in a few weeks, but for a club like United, the FA Cup is the minimum acceptable measurement of success. Arsenal's larcenous victory in last year's final and the absence of European distractions mean that every fibre of the club's being will be focused on victory tomorrow. As they have demonstrated already this season, however else they may have slipped, the ability to dig out results in big domestic matches as not yet escaped them.

Liverpool will dominate the midfield tomorrow, and the possession statistics, but if there is to be a winner tomorrow United's greater threat up front, but more importantly the necessity of victory, will carry them through.

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