What a difference a year makes for Manchester United and Liverpool. As the bitter rivals prepare to resume hostilities at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Just 12 months ago, United’s title defence was in tatters and manager David Moyes was having to explain how he had managed to turn Alex Ferguson’s ferocious tiger of a team into an over-cautious kitten. Liverpool, meanwhile, could do no wrong.
The goals were flowing freely as manager Brendan Rodgers adopted a system that allowed Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to fill their boots and Anfield rejoiced as some long-lost swagger returned. In early December last year, United lost 1-0 at home to Everton and Newcastle United as the same players who had been runaway league champions the season before looked utterly shorn of belief. Their pain was heightened as their arch-rivals steamed ahead.
A 3-1 win over Cardiff City courtesy two goals from Suarez helped Liverpool go top of the table playing a brand of entertaining football more commonly seen at Old Trafford in recent seasons.
Twelve months, however, is a long time in football and two transfer windows is sufficient to bring about a revolution in an era when the stock of managers can rise and plummet like a stone after back-to-back wins or consecutive defeats.
Now it is United who are starting to strut. With Moyes a distant memory and the imposing figure of Dutchman Louis van Gaal at the helm, United have returned to form. Five straight Premier League wins have lifted them to third in the table, just as Liverpool suffered a stupefying 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland last weekend that left them ninth.
Another lifeless draw at home to Basel in the Champions League on Tuesday dumped them out of the competition and left pundits to pick over the bones of a team who look the palest of shadows of last season’s outfit. Former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson called them “rudderless” after their European failure, while another former stalwart Steve Nicol said the manager’s job was on the line.
Contrasting transfer-market strategies in which Liverpool looked to unearth hidden gems as United paid big for established talents are being touted as a simple explanation for their differing situations.
Liverpool sold Luis Suarez to Barcelona and replaced him with nine players of potential for 130 million pounds ($204 million), whereas United recruited high-profile names such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao from the top drawer. As well as buying big, Van Gaal has restored a winning mentality at United that has not been sighted at Old Trafford since Alex Ferguson left the dug-out.
Rodgers, by contrast, seems uncertain of his best team, formation, or even tactical approach. The gung-ho outlook that propelled them to within an inch of last season’s title proved largely unsuccessful at the start of the current campaign, while recently achieved defensive solidity has blunted attacking intent. Part of the problem for Rodgers seems to be the attacking players he signed bare little resemblance to the departed Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge.
Kompany set to return
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany will return for their game at Leicester City as the champions bid to maintain the pressure on leaders Chelsea with a fifth straight Premier League win, manager Manuel Pellegrini said on Friday. Kompany has sat out City’s last three games, including the superb 2-0 midweek win at Roma as they booked a spot in the Champions League last 16, with a hamstring problem.
Pellegrini deemed it too great a risk to include the centre back in Italy but expects the Belgian to be ready for the match at bottom club Leicester.
“Vincent Kompany is in the squad list so I don’t think he will have any problem to play tomorrow,” Pellegrini said.
The City boss said Spanish playmaker David Silva should also be available. “We will see tomorrow, he didn’t feel any pain in the knee from the 30 minutes (in Rome) so I think he will be fit,” he said.
City are three points behind table-toppers Chelsea after 15 games and face a favourable run of fixtures over the congested Christmas period with their next five matches against teams currently in the bottom seven.
Pellegrini is expecting to have good news on the future of goalkeeper Joe Hart in the coming days, with the 27-year-old set to sign a new deal along with midfielder James Milner.
“I think it is close. Joe wants to stay here and we want him to be our goalkeeper,” he said. “I hope Milner will sign also. I think he will continue here because he also wants to stay,” he added.