Liverpool vs Manchester United on Sunday evening; that in itself is the context

Liverpool vs Manchester United: For the first time in 28 years, Liverpool nudged past Manchester United in the richest club list of Deloitte Money League. Liverpool are third, pushing United to fourth. But does it really matter whose coffers are swilling more bills? Or who is richer than who or who is the richest?

But it does matter; everything matters when it is between Liverpool and United, English football’s fiercest and most colourful rivalry, an encounter that needs no further context than they are playing each other on the night, wherever it might be, Anfield, Old Trafford, Wembley, or Africa or Asia, or anywhere else in the world. As they do on Sunday evening.

The anatomy of the rivalry is strange, in that it has not always been rancorous, that they have seldom been direct competitors for the league in their respective eras of dominance, that they don’t share deep social or cultural antagonism. It’s a bizarre sequence. In the best years of Liverpool, pre-EPL as well as the Jurgen Klopp era, United were barely challengers. In the halcyon days of United, both in the Busby and Ferguson era, Liverpool were often a mid-table presence. In the Fergie era, Liverpool hired nine managers; and in Klopp’s time, he has set up his team against four different United managers. Klopp has once rued that his time in England had never coincided with Ferguson. And when Klopp meets Ferguson’s latest successor, there is an overwhelming feeling that one dynasty is crumbling and the other rising.

There are little title stakes— seldom has it been in the last six decades. It is unlikely that United could launch a title charge; it is unlikelier that Liverpool could nail Champions League qualification while United are near certain to finish in the top four. The gulf between them on the table is 10-point wide.

It’s Liverpool-United rivalry in a nutshell. No trespassing on each other’s garden when in full bloom. As though they have been careful to not tread on each other’s path during their peak years, there is defined demarcation of their periods of domination in the last 59 years, in which both have shared 30 titles among themselves. Liverpool were the chief force in the 1970s and 1990s before Alex Ferguson embarked on a sparkling spell.

In the Busby years, United’s original rival was Leeds United, and Busby, a former Liverpool himself, shared friendly vibes with the club. He once wrote of his former club: “Liverpool deserved their success because they treated everyone on the staff as a human being should be treated with kindness, consideration and understanding.” In 1915, a match between the sides was allegedly fixed so that United could avoid relegation (and in turn Chelsea were relegated). For Liverpool, during the trophy-churning 70s, the Merseyside derby was the most fractious fixture. So friendly were the Reds and Red Devils that Anfield was even United’s home ground for two matches when Old Trafford was banned for hooliganism.

Some historians consider the 1977 FA Cup final that United won as the starting point of the bitter rivalry as we know it, tribalistic as it is today. The win crushed Liverpool’s hopes of a treble, a feat that Ferguson’s men were to achieve 22 years later. Some say, the rivalry was sown during the days of industrial revolution when both were competing industrial towns, and over the years the historical layers and threads wove subconsciously into their sporting robes. Ferguson firmly believed that the genesis of their loathing originated when Manchester built the shipping canal in 1893 that threatened Liverpool’s ocean-going trade.

Perhaps, this theory is true to an extent, as both are envious of each other’s success. A day before their most recent encounter, Klopp wallowed: “It’s pretty much impossible to be happy about something positive at Manchester United when you are the Liverpool manager.” Ferguson never spared a chance for sarcasm. “What is great is that our young fans don’t even remember the last time Liverpool was successful.”

More realistically, the rivalry boils down to bragging rights, and one-upmanship. Liverpool watched in angst Ferguson’s men winning 13 titles that pip Liverpool as the most successful club in the EPL/First division. United have 20; Liverpool one short. But the latter would claim they won more silverwares in Europe, they have six, United just half as many. Liverpool also edge out United by two trophies (45-43)in the all-trophy count.

A story goes that a Liverpool fan sought Eric Cantona’s autograph and then tore it in front of him. When United won their 10th title, a Liverpool fan held a banner: “Comeback when you have won 18.” And when they indeed won their 18th, they did not forget to taunt the Reds:“You told us to come back, and we are here.” And came the 19th and the 20th.

Thus, the instinct to measure each other’s success by the results against each other is at the heart of their rivalry, from the time they were industrial towns to the days when they are the two football giants in the world. So Erik Ten Hag’s resurgent United have already beaten Liverpool (dubbed the win that turned United around after shock defeats to Brentford and Brighton), Manchester City and Arsenal, but defeating Liverpool away would be considered the ultimate approval of the team retracing the old and forgotten steps to the top of the league.

Consequently, the two teams have produced some classic matches and match-ups. For a while the midfield contest between Roy Keane and the young Steven Gerrard was as riveting as the one between Keane and Patrick Vieira, or those between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, in those days when both competed to churn out homegrown players in abundance. There have been incidents too. There was Steven Gerrard planting his studs on Ander Herrera’s ankle or Michael Owen getting sent off, Luis Suarez racially insulting Patrice Evra.

The 239th meeting between them—United have an 83-70 record—promises as much. A sparring of the majestic Mohammad Salah and Marcus Rashford, of the tenacious Rafael Varane and Virgil van Dijk, of Johan Henderson and Casemiro, of pressing and passing. The quality on the field itself would be engrossing, but when it is between Liverpool and United, it is seldom just about the result, but the broader picture. Is United indeed a force on the ascendency? Is the Klopp era rumbling to a natural end? Whatever be, it is Liverpool versus Manchester United on Sunday evening. That in itself is the context.

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