Liverpool need boost as spotlight falls on Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho
When Liverpool play Manchester United on Saturday, both clubs face critical examination of their current credentials.
In Liverpool's case they must persuade fans that September was a blip and their top-four finish last season was no flash in the pan aided by an absence of European football; United have begun the season strongly but face suggestions they have benefitted from an easy opening fixture list.
If none of the above were relevant it would still be Liverpool vs. Manchester United: one of the bitterest rivalries in world football and a game supporters dread losing.
This has always been true, but when United hired Jose Mourinho things took a sterner turn. The Portuguese coach has a long, fractious history of his own with Liverpool which began when he joined Chelsea in 2004.
The Londoners' domestic dominance wasn't matched by European success, because the Reds stood in their way for two Champions League semifinals. All of which means this fiercely fought and occasionally tasteless grudge match might even get worse in coming years, despite two largely humdrum draws in the league last season.
Geographical proximity and a desperate desire to be the No. 1 club is blamed for the often ugly overreaction of both sets of fans to what is ultimately just a football match.
One other ingredient is that for over four decades there's never been a time when both clubs were on an equal footing. In the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool won all the trophies while their rivals seethed with resentment; during the 1990s and 2000s it was United's turn.
The clubs have experienced either feast or famine. Jealousy of another club while living with one's own shortcomings is no recipe for harmony.
Like most strong rivalries, it isn't enough to be successful, the others must suffer simultaneously. If it's due to their own mistakes so much the better.
In the build-up to this fixture there have been references to Liverpool nightmares of the past. Sir Alex Ferguson has again spoken of knocking Liverpool "off their perch," albeit in a foreword to former Everton star Peter Reid's autobiography. In truth Liverpool were already falling by then but Ferguson still wants credit for it -- as well as all the trophies.
The subject of Rafa Benitez's rant about "facts" in January 2009 was also revived, its importance in Liverpool coming second to United that year once again inflated.
It's a regular occurrence. Few refer to the 1996 FA Cup final as "the Eric Cantona game" for his winning goal. It's the "white suits final" because of Liverpool players' garish prematch attire and its questionable relevance.
During Saturday's game there will be inevitable away end songs about Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea on April 27, 2014. For some reason, it's important to United fans that Liverpool don't just fail; they must somehow instigate their own downfall -- even if that Gerrard lapse led to Manchester City being crowned champions instead.
Not that Liverpool fans can be snooty about other clubs' motivations. Back in 1986 the Reds won their only league and FA Cup double, with Everton runners up in both competitions. That didn't stop fans from revelling in United's misfortune after they'd won their first 10 league games and a national newspaper produced the infamous headline "Give It To United Now."
Liverpool fans were not shy in reminding their rivals about that, singing about United coming fourth in a two-horse race while waving a banner at Wembley for the final with Everton which mocked Manchester as a "trophy free zone."
For such an intense rivalry, how often have Liverpool and United actually been the top two of the same league table? The extremes of success and luck helped create this monster.
The upcoming fixture has been preceded by comments about Mourinho's defensive tendencies, although United's recent improvement is based largely on the frequency of their goals. Such talk about pragmatism tends to reveal some jealousy in the Liverpool ranks, Mourinho's abiding wish to get the right result at almost any cost being something their own team was once famous for.
The absence of Sadio Mane is a big blow to Jurgen Klopp, already mindful of a poor record in games that have an early kick-off and also immediately following an international break.
The combination of the two does not bode well for Liverpool. Their last three victories against United all featured a clean sheet, something which is regularly eluding them this season.
Of the two managers it is Klopp who is more in need of a confidence boost than his rival. Even a draw, especially if combined with a battling performance, might be enough.
For two hours on Saturday, who stands where in the table and who stands to gain most from victory will be almost irrelevant. Pride is at stake. For winners and losers alike, that will mean everything.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.