Manchester United v Liverpool, 1.30pm

icon premb13 January ~ You would have thought that someone at his new employers might have taken Daniel Sturridge aside earlier this week and told him not to say any more daft things about which Premier League club is the biggest. Especially given the timing. If there's any fixture on the calendar that doesn't need stoking, it's Manchester United against Liverpool. In the wake of the Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra affair, and wary of the reception that the Uruguayan is likely to receive post-Mansfield, even Alex Ferguson has called for calm ahead of today's game at Old Trafford.

From the away team's viewpoint it's probably a bigger game for us than it is for United. There has been a long wait for Liverpool's recent upturn in form and there are clear signs that things are getting better. But the fact remains that we haven't beaten anyone above us in the league this season.

The pre-match media focus is likely to be on the battle of the forwards – leading scorer Robin van Persie against leading contender Suárez; whether Wayne Rooney, as he's suggested himself this week, will be fit to play and whether Sturridge will start. But without wishing to drag up the inevitable cliche, chances are that the game will be dictated by who wins the midfield. Michael Carrick seems to have finally hit some real form, while it's hoped that Brendan Rodgers will have noted how much time Paul Scholes was allowed on the ball during our defeat here last year. Tom Cleverley, meanwhile, is improving with each game.

After a quiet first half of the season, Steven Gerrard is talking the talk again off the pitch and nearing his influential best on it, though the performance of Lucas Leiva might well be key to the final result. The long injury lay-off appears to have taken a greater toll on his fitness than he probably imagined. Recent games, including the one at Mansfield, have found him floundering somewhat, mistiming tackles and failing to plug the gaps he usually fills with commanding regularity.

Defeat for United, though galling, won't scupper their title chances to any great degree. But if we lose, it might be the start of another unsettling few weeks for Rodgers, who only ever seems to be one game away from a crisis and renewed media natter about his future. Away games at Arsenal and Manchester City, plus a tricky Cup draw at Oldham, signal the most critical time of his tenure so far. A win at United this weekend might be the boost he needs before those fixtures. Let's just hope he gets his team-talk right. Perhaps he'll reverse the psychology of last week and tell them to imagine they're playing Mansfield instead. Rob Hughes

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