Comment: Once great Man Utd v Liverpool rivalry is slowly becoming mediocre

Is it so wrong to long for a name like Nicky Butt or Gary McAllister to appear on the teamsheet come Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford?

After all, the great days of Manchester United against Liverpool are well in the past.

Traditionally one of the biggest fixtures in English football, when the teams emerge from the tunnel at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ on Sunday afternoon they will be met to a cacophony of noise that encapsulates the bitter rivalry between the country’s most successful clubs.

This north-west derby is one of the first every fan looks for at the start of the season – a fiery jewel in the crown of the footballing calendar.

However, is the relative lack of current success for both clubs threatening to take some of the bite out this most tempestuous of clashes?

United have suffered a turbulent period since securing their 20th league title in 2012/13, muddling through David Moyes’ ill-fated reign before Louis van Gaal’s less than impressive start to the current campaign.

Miraculously, United are third in the Premier League and only eight points behind leaders Chelsea despite experiencing their worst start to a league season since 1989/1990 before embarking on their current five-game winning streak.

The art of winning ugly has returned to Old Trafford.

Liverpool are on a downwards slide, limping out of the Champions League and languishing ninth in the table.

Their £100million summer spending spree has failed to compensate for the sale of Luis Suarez and the injuries to Daniel Sturridge, while their defence looks leakier than the leakiest of sieves.

Brendan Rogers’ side is struggling in all areas of the pitch and are a shadow of last year’s outfit, with this looking like one mission too far for inspirational captain Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard has been a constant in the Liverpool set-up for over a decade, and has continually dragged his team into positions where they had no right to be in.

But one man can only do so much, and those legs are finally showing signs of fatigue having covered a fair amount of ground since his first team debut in 1998.

While Gerrard’s influence has been waning in recent times, United have also experienced the loss of certain key figures who helped give the clash between the two great northern cities added impetus.

Roy Keane was never one to let a game drift serenely by while Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville were also fond of a confrontational encounter. 

Perhaps most significantly, the departure of managerial behemoth Sir Alex Ferguson has removed some of the lustre from battles between the two most successful teams in English football.

Ferguson was always aware of the significance of the clash, providing a lodestone for Liverpool fans’ abuse while acting as a symbol of defiance that galvanised United supporters.

With his absence, the fixture has lost yet another figure that made the event great.

As managers and players move through the revolving doors at both clubs, the fans remain the enduring factor that make this game one of the most famous contests around the world.

Unfortunately, the quality on show come Sunday is likely to be poor fare for these supporters compared to the barnstorming encounters of years gone by.

There is a lack of fluency in both sides as they struggle to adapt to a raft of changes being implemented in the respective camps.

On paper, the talent is there. Angel Di Maria, Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Mario Balotelli are all exceptional on their day, while Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling represent some of the best homegrown in the league.

But will players of this calibre provide the same snarling, crunching meeting that fans were consistently treated to when Keane and Gerrard were in their prime.

While football followers are often criticised for being unrealistic in their expectations, they are correct to demand full commitment in a derby of this magnitude.

Scanning the potential squads for this weekend’s fixture, it is a struggle to see where the first hair-raising challenge or moment of confrontation will come from.

This is a somewhat primitive view of what a derby should include, suggesting that commitment is best represented by fouling your opponent, but a key aspect of this footballing rivalry has always been of a physical nature.

While it could be argued that an improvement in footballing quality is better than watching people kick lumps out of each other, it cannot be denied that the some of the spice has ebbed out of the tie.

Main image courtesy of Carl Recine/Action Images, with thanks.

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