There can be fewer phrases more overused than “biggest game of the season”, it’s up there with “this will be our year” and “Donald Trump slams ludicrous allegations,” but for the upcoming fixture between United and Liverpool the hype may actually be justified. For once.
In an era which has seen games between Leicester and Spurs given the moniker “season defining fixture” it’s easy to dismiss the hyperbole that prefixes almost every televised match with the disdain most of it merits, but today’s clash at Anfield may just be one of the most seminal games in recent years.
For the first time since the Premier League began, neither Liverpool or United finished in the top four last season and both began this campaign desperate to make missing out on the Champions League a rarity rather than a regular occurrence, as despite the successes both clubs have had in years gone by, many years gone by in the Merseysiders case, there’s every chance that just two or three season’s out of the Champions League sun can lead to decades in the dark.
Liverpool thought they’d become perennial title challengers under Rafa Benitez but by the end of his reign they were plodding around the Anfield pitch applauding a half-empty stadium after finishing seventh, things surely had to get better, but instead they got a lot worse as Roy Hodgson arrived and it looked as though the club were hurtling rapidly towards oblivion, while under Sir Alex United continued to challenge for and win titles, even when threatened by Manchester City’s new found billions.
Three seasons ago, it seemed the status quo was about to change, revert back to the 70s and 80s somehow as the hapless David Moyes took United to seventh place while Brendan Rodgers came within a Steven Gerrard slip of ending Liverpool’s long wait for the title. If the Red half of Merseyside thought this was the dawning of a new era, where the only red ribbons on the Premier League would belong to them, they were as mistaken as Gerrard’s attempts at post-match morale building as City, Chelsea and bizarrely Leicester exchanged titles while Rodgers imploded under a sea of arrogance.
Prior to the appointment of Jurgen Klopp it seemed as though Liverpool’s decline was almost guaranteed, with Rodgers’ inadequacies becoming badly exposed and owners Fenway Sports Group seemingly unwilling to invest the many millions needed to get the side challenging again, but all that negativity changed to typical scouse bravado, some would even say delusion, with appointment of the German coach.
Klopp’s first season in charge saw his side reach two finals yet finish the season empty-handed and in eighth place in the table, hardly the second coming the fans had been expecting, although to his credit the former Borussia Dortmund manager didn’t dip into the transfer market – other than Marko Grujic who was immediately loaned back to his club and Steven Caulker who played three games - instead working with the squad he inherited, and recovering from the poor start his predecessor had overseen.
While Klopp was getting his house in order Louis van Gaal was burning his down with football so boring watching United became akin to necking mogadon and it was only a matter of time before the Dutchman’s arguments about ‘progression’ and ‘philosophy’ became exposed as the Emperor’s New Clothes type drivel they were.
Once Jose Mourinho had been jettisoned from Chelsea, not even an FA Cup win and the ‘discovery’ of Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah could prevent van Gaal from joining the dole queue and many United fans believed they’d finally got the manager they should have had immediately following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, saving themselves three seasons of underachieving with football so mundane alcohol sales inside Old Trafford more than doubled. Probably.
This season has seen Liverpool looking like a side that can challenge for the title Jurgen Klopp promised to deliver within four years, the only problem facing the German, one which Mourinho also has to face is the way other clubs have strengthened this Summer, in some cases spending more than the former Dortmund boss could dream ever of.
City, Spurs, Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal and of course United have all had busy transfer windows with the latter breaking the Premier League transfer record and with Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola at the very least expected to reach the top four, the two North London clubs looking to challenge for the title let alone make the Champions League and Ronald Koeman already defying the odds at Everton, helped by some very astute signings, it’s going to be tough for both Klopp and Mourinho to earn a place at the elite table.
Not to be deterred, Liverpool started the season with an emphatic 4-3 win at Arsenal, before being brought back down to earth with a 2-0 loss at newly promoted Burnley a one all draw against Spurs which was followed by a run of four Premier League victories that had the fans crowing again, although if we’re being brutally honest it doesn’t take much for some of them to start bragging how “this is their year,” it’s almost an annual statement and one that Steven Gerrard in particular must have been sick of hearing.
United under Mourinho have begun in an erratic fashion with impressive performances and last minute wins followed by a run of disappointing results that had idiotic members of the press and rival fans claiming he was somehow in danger of losing his job, hardly likely given the huge contract he was handed and the months of squabbling behind the scenes at Old Trafford as to whether he should actually be given the job- not to mention the massive backing in the transfer market he’d received.
A win for United on Monday would convince the doubters that Mourinho’s three game wobble was just that, after the jubilation earned from the win against Leicester was tempered somewhat by a draw to lowly Stoke, but more importantly it could give his side a real belief that this season can be more than just a quest for top four, after all beating your arch rivals, in their own backyard, ending a run of wins in the process is the stuff fans live for and managers dream of, you only have to look back a couple of seasons to see just how vital an Anfield win was for Louis van Gaal in his attempt to make the top four, one of the rare occasions ‘philosophy’ seemed more than just a meaningless buzzword.
Normally seasons aren’t decided in October and there’s every chance whoever loses could end up finishing above the victors come May, but these aren’t normal circumstances and we’ve already seen hysteria from both sets of fans and sections of the media during Mourinho and Klopp’s tenures, a win on Monday may just be the catalyst for either manager to truly galvanise the fans and deflate one of their main rivals, it may be early in the season but for once this game could be worth the hype.