London – When Sir Alex Ferguson said five or six years ago that Manchester United’s real rivals would always be “that lot down the road”, he was talking about Liverpool.
He knew what he was doing, too. Ferguson was, in his own unequivocal way, keeping Manchester City firmly in their place.
Ferguson will be at Old Trafford tonight when his assertion is put to the test. We have seen many things when United and City have met over the last decade but nothing like this: a derby that United’s supporters are not sure they really want to win.
On the face of it, United are in a horrible mess and need a victory to wash the acrid smell of Sunday’s 4-0 beating at Everton from their nostrils. But such a victory would hand Liverpool the initiative in their Premier League title battle with City.
United could handle another City title, their sixth. But Liverpool? That would be something else altogether. Should Jurgen Klopp’s team win this championship, it would require a recalibration of football’s compass.
Without a league title since 1990, Liverpool’s return to eminence would be confirmed. Their total would be 19, one behind United, and in a season when they could also win a sixth European Cup.
So if United’s sense of self-worth is not already being squeezed by bad football and bad results, it now faces a fresh assault from an enemy that has been kept at arm’s length for the entire Premier League era.
Things like this matter in football. It is partly what sustains it beneath the commercial gloss.
This will be a bad summer for United, whoever wins the title. But it will be worse if it’s Liverpool.
“There’s loads of things that motivate players,” said United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when asked about his team’s predicament yesterday.
“The motivation is towards winning something yourself. It’s not about taking something away from others. We have to want to overtake them both (City and Liverpool). We want to be the best.
“We have been the best before and it’s not nice seeing those two at the top. I am sure we will get a response after Sunday. There is always a crisis at Man United when you lose a game or two.”
Solskjaer, who described tonight as the perfect fixture to follow the Goodison debacle, knows this better than most. In United’s treble season of 1998-99, Ferguson’s team did not win for almost a month at the start of winter and yet we know how that campaign turned out.
This particular revival, if there is one, will be harder-earned. United are a rabble right now and when Solskjaer said yesterday he does not expect to challenge for the title next season, it was not a particularly shocking pronouncement.
United will play to win tonight, of course, and don’t expect silence if they surprise us all and score a goal.
Nevertheless, that United find themselves as an unwitting third wheel to this year’s title battle only reminds them once again how diminished they have become since Ferguson stepped aside.
A performance of merit tonight would be something. A result would be an enormous surprise.
United have scored just five goals in the six games since Solskjaer was appointed permanently and two of those were penalties. They haven’t kept a clean sheet since February 24.
City will be without Kevin De Bruyne, maybe for the season, but it doesn’t seem to matter these days, so deep is the squad available to Pep Guardiola.
The champions have lost just once in the league since Boxing Day and have won their last 10 games in the competition.
“The players know the importance of this and what we’re looking for,” said Guardiola. “United players lost the last game 4-0 and have been told something about their performance.
“I know what would be our reaction and that’s what is going to happen from them. We have to accept it but that’s the challenge.”
There was a time when a positive response from United’s players would be a given, but these are not those times.
Anything could happen and, only three and a half months in to his tenure, Solskjaer will know it.
Maybe that is why he sought to inject a little needle with his mention of City’s so-called technical fouls yesterday.
To tweak the blue tiger’s tail seemed brave at best, foolish at worst. It has been noted by Guardiola and if City start fast tonight, then we will know why.