Rodgers' Reds will struggle against United
MAN UNITED v LIVERPOOL
(Tonight, 9.30pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 102 and StarHub TV Ch 227)
Luis Suarez was more than a man. He was the curtain. He held up the facade. He blocked out reality.
When he stepped aside, the curtain was pulled back to reveal not a revolutionary, but a confused coach.
Brendan Rodgers isn't the Wizard of Oz after all. He's still a young manager with a woeful transfer record that precedes his time at Liverpool and a startling inability to find a successful Plan B (or even a consistent Plan A.)
Unlike the man in the opposite dugout (Louis van Gaal) at Old Trafford tonight, Rodgers has struggled to change the complexion of games in real time. He doesn't improvise. He dithers.
Against the game's coaching heavyweight, he becomes lightheaded. When flush with transfer kitty cash, he gets a rush of blood to the head.
His selections are inconsistent. The Reds look insipid.
Last season, he got away with it, thanks to that pesky Suarez. In the first 15 games of the previous campaign, the Reds had bagged 34 goals; 15 of which belonged to Suarez.
After 15 games this time around, they are faltering on 19.
Suarez did more than carry his team. He carried his manager.
Rodgers was found out in the Champions League; a number of increasingly perplexing decisions, beginning with the nonsensical decision to rest players in Madrid, culminating in a quite wretched home performance against a cut-price Basel side.
A seasoned Dutchman is now primed to probe Rodgers' deficiencies.
Liverpool's alarming free-fall from the summit, tumbling towards mid-table mediocrity in a matter of months, has been explained by Suarez's exit and Daniel Sturridge's injury.
Sturridge's eventual return will not halt the slide. Rodgers remains the root cause.
Back in March, this fixture marked the turning point for both clubs. United were lucky to lose 3-0, Liverpool's title credentials were finally taken seriously and David Moyes was left a dead man walking.
The remarkable result sparked a revolution, but it was at Old Trafford rather than Anfield. Liverpool have been regressing even since, with one baffling transfer buy and selection blunder after another.
Nine months later, the Reds' gestation period remains horribly painful. Rodgers doesn't seem sure of what he's trying to deliver.
In a must-win Champions League game, he played safe against the Swiss side. Adam Lallana was left out. Liverpool's creativity was effectively neutered.
After insisting that Andy Carroll was beneath his Beautiful Game, Rodgers bought an inferior version in Rickie Lambert (and an irrelevant version in Mario Balotelli).
Lambert and Balotelli have one goal between them.
The desperate emphasis on Sturridge's absence merely amplifies Rodgers' struggle to tick the first box of a resourceful Premier League manager. It's the one marked "make do".
For van Gaal, listening to Rodgers' eternal lament about his lack of strikers must be like an Orchard Road busker listening to U2's tax problems. There's a distinct lack of perspective.
United's backline has been left decimated by injury, with inexperienced or unfamiliar personnel picked and rotated in almost every game.
The Red Devils find themselves lumbered with the most ineffective, haphazard and, at times, downright calamitous defence in the last three decades.
But van Gaal has tinkered, tweaked, dabbled, dropped, cajoled and encouraged until a decidedly average United side somehow found five wins in a row without ever really fixing their back four or playing particularly well.
And yet, there is a growing sense of belief. United are by no means blooming, but the green shoots are poking through the turf. Their recovery is taking root.
Much has rightly been made of the two shots United managed on target against both Southampton and Arsenal, in stark contrasts to the shots that peppered David de Gea's goal. But they prevailed in both games.
United are not swinging, but they are still winning.
Liverpool can't manage either.
Even before the unbeaten run, the consensus at the Carrington training ground was one of trust for the new manager. Van Gaal inherited an unbalanced squad, but he has compensated with a clear-headed vision and a healthy intolerance of failure.
He wins five in a row and insists how disappointed he is with the lack of attacking urgency. He sounds like a United manager.
Liverpool are humbled in the Champions League and Rodgers speaks of a new set of players requiring more time to gel. He sounds like a befuddled manager.
If he is defeated at the scene of one of his greatest victories, he will be a haunted manager.
In the battle of the dozing defences, the superior strike force should prevail.
Van Gaal has the strikers. Rodgers has few attacking options and even fewer excuses. Lose at Old Trafford and the Liverpool manager may be accused of losing the plot.
"As my teams have shown, we'll get better as the season goes on. But we want to start that sooner rather than later."
- Brendan Rodgers, ahead of tonight’s match against Man United
Don't write off Liverpool, says Gary Lim
Liverpool needed a wake-up call and boy, did they get one right smack in the head.
Bye bye, Champions League, and hello Europa Disneyland.
Basel gave them one black eye and Manchester United are poised to make that a pair.
At Old Trafford today, Liverpool won't be standing much of a chance.
Well, at least that's what everyone is saying. If you're a betting man I'd say the same.
In keeping with the tradition of Calamity James, they have now a Mignolet Mishap in goal.
The backline can't stand in a straight line and a circus has taken over the midfield.
Up front, they are firing air pellets.
Months of mediocrity have taken a toll on Liverpool's confidence. It can't get any worse.
But that's exactly where the danger lies, in wait, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting.
Where Liverpool are now, buried in mid-table shambles, they have nothing to lose. And this is usually how the hunter becomes the hunted.
This was how Malaysia, against the odds, tore Vietnam to shreds in the second leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals.
Man United may be flying at the moment. They have won five matches on the trot and shown vast improvement.
But they are also not without problems of their own.
They have a lengthy injury list that has debilitated their squad, and their new players need time to gel.
Manager Louis van Gaal is also still fumbling about with a weakened and unreliable defence.
This is where Liverpool must strike.
They are down but they are not out.
Amid the ordinariness, three attacking men - Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana - have the right weapons in their arsenal to make the Red Devils pay, especially if complacency creeps into the their camp.
Make no mistake, van Gaal's men still hold the upper hand.
Despite their problems, they headed into this weekend third on the Premiership table and look decidedly more confident than they were at the start of the campaign.
But the occasion suits Liverpool more than United.
Nothing like a grudge match to pump the adrenalin and stir the emotions.
Nothing like pain to remind them of what they are capable of.
It won't guarantee them a fine performance or a good result. But it will at least put life back into the soulless bodies that have been donning the red of Merseyside for far too long.
It's exactly what Liverpool need, not a prolific goal-scorer, a swashbuckling midfielder or a rock-solid defender.
Some passion today can go a long way.