HEART OF FOOTBALL

Man U fans will tell Gerrard to kiss farewell to title hopes

Steven Gerrard, who converted two penalties when Liverpool visited Old Trafford in March and posted a 3-0 win, returns to the home of their bitter rivals with a team who have fallen short in quality and entertainment value.
Steven Gerrard, who converted two penalties when Liverpool visited Old Trafford in March and posted a 3-0 win, returns to the home of their bitter rivals with a team who have fallen short in quality and entertainment value.PHOTO: REUTERS

Liverpool went meekly out of the Champions League last week. Manchester United failed even to qualify for the tournament.

Neither are likely to win the Premier League this season.

But when they meet at Old Trafford today, nothing - absolutely nothing - will matter more than their inter-city rivalry.

United versus Liverpool is a century-old boiling pot. The teams dispute every little thing, from their history to the right to be the predominant Reds of the English north-west.

"Choosing between Man City and Liverpool to win the title last season," said Barney Chilton, editor of the Man United fanzine Red News, "was like being offered two different types of disease."

It was, however, the only choice in town. Alex Ferguson had seen to it that United overhauled Liverpool's number of English titles but, when he retired, the mould broke.

And last season indeed came down to the neighbours or those other Reds from Merseyside winning it.

"It was surreal," Chilton concluded, "but you just had to choose. And, ultimately, you knew you had to root for City. The thought of Liverpool winning the league was just unbearable."

Surreal it may be. But true fans (let's use the word fanatics) cannot change their loyalty any more than they could change their skin. They are in it for life, and throughout the lifetime of most United followers, overhauling Liverpool's 18 English titles was the Holy Grail.

When they did it, and pushed the record to 20, it seemed safe to assume that Liverpool's long, long period in relative decline was set.

Then, Fergie's fire was switched off. In March, Liverpool won 3-0 at Old Trafford, Steven Gerrard scored and blew a kiss at the TV camera.

Liverpool's 25-year wait for the league crown to come back to them was within sight.

The United fans are going to enjoy reminding Gerrard of that kiss this afternoon.

And they are sure to remind him also that his slip on wet turf at Anfield a few weeks later allowed Chelsea to win there, and effectively ended Liverpool's title hopes.

Poor, rich, sometimes magnificent Stevie G. He once, in his youth, had a chance to join United.

He would have won many more trophies had he done that, or had he accepted Chelsea offers a few years back.

But Gerrard is as much a Liverpool fan as that editor of Red News belongs to the other side.

Gerrard's great mate, Jamie Carragher, pointed out yesterday that a window of opportunity opened for Liverpool when Ferguson finally left office. That window might not come again.

Liverpool, Carragher noted, spent more than £100 million (S$206 million) between last season and this.

"But where has it got them?" he asked in a column in the Daily Mail. "And when will they ever be able to lavish another £100 million spending?"

The bulk of the money came from the player Anfield could not afford to lose at any price, Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan wanted to leave because he is like the bulk of modern footballers - a mercenary who looks for the best offer and the best place to win trophies.

His habit of biting opponents, and the accusation that he racially tainted United's former defender Patrice Evra, also made him less welcome in England.

Finally, his wife's family live in Catalonia, and who in their right mind turns down Barcelona?

The question in many minds was how Barca could fit in Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi.

Silly question. The answer is that they are different types.

Messi can play anywhere, pull any strings, and score goals. Neymar is essentially a winger who can adapt to any role and score goals.

Suarez is a fast, irrepressible hunter who is a team player willing to chase any lost cause.

Bang, bang, bang. The three of them scored last Wednesday so that Barcelona could overhaul Paris Saint-Germain who had the temerity to take the lead - through former Barca striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

All those talents on one field, far away from England.

But if there are clubs in the EPL who might attract the best out there, they are the unconditionally rich Man City (thanks to Abu Dhabi), Chelsea (Roman Abramovich) and Man U (thanks to a 75,000-seater stadium and decades of global popularity for which major sponsors will pay).

Carragher is as besotted with Liverpool as Gerrard is. However now that he is on the side of the TV pundits and columnists, he faces facts.

United's latest published accounts report an income of £433 million per year. Liverpool are doing pretty well but their turnover is half that sum and their American owners also have the Boston Red Sox to manage - and have earmarked millions to rebuild Anfield to increase the capacity from 45,000 to 59,000 by 2016.

Even by then, it will seat less than Old Trafford. And between now and then, Manchester's spending power will always be greater than Liverpool's.

Money isn't everything. But short of Brendan Rodgers reincarnating himself as a second Bill Shankly, what is going to swing the pendulum of this English rivalry?

Rodgers is hamstrung at the moment. Not only has Suarez gone and his new purchases look less exciting in total than the Uruguayan was on his own, but the other main striker, Daniel Sturridge, has also missed, so far, a third of this season through injuries.

Raheem Sterling is still young, and as the young tend to be (Messi excepted), still inconsistent. When Sterling is on song, he lifts everyone but we saw the best of him leading up to the World Cup.

He needs Sturridge, certainly needs someone more reliable than Mario Balotelli and someone younger than Rickie Lambert.

There's the sting. Robin van Persie, the Liverpool-born Wayne Rooney and the currently injured Angel di Maria are three strikers whom Gerrard can only dream of playing behind. Against Basel, Gerrard had no option but to try to lead from the front.

He netted a typical Gerrard free-kick bender. But, approaching his 35th birthday, he is fighting the years. Blowing kisses at Old Trafford, slipping and sliding at Anfield, his quest for the title looks painfully beyond him.

United's faithful will let him know that.

stsports@sph.com.sg