Defeat wouldn't be a disaster
1 September ~ You have to go back five years to find the last time Liverpool played Manchester United while sitting above them in the league. The fourth game of Rafa Benítez's team's strong start to the 2008-09 season was a 2-1 win over United, which meant that on the evening of September 13, they sat second in the table with ten points, while their opponents languished in 13th with just four. Of course, no Liverpool fan but the most outrageously optimistic would suggest that Brendan Rodgers' 2013 side stand any chance of replicating that year's title challenge.
Nor would they say that being above United after just two games – particularly when one of their rival's matches so far was a draw against Chelsea – is particularly relevant. Nevertheless, it's rare for M62 derbies to feel quite so lacking in nervous tension for the Liverpudlian half as this one currently does.
The positive start to the current season undoubtedly helps with this attitude, although 1-0 wins over Stoke and Aston Villa hardly suggest that the team has suddenly become mighty enough to defeat the champions with ease. Nevertheless, both results – along with the almost-embarrassing extra-time League Cup win over Notts County – feel like the sidestepping of potential banana skins that recent iterations of the side might have (and, indeed, frequently had) slipped upon.
The squad needs further reinforcement and is still some way from making Rodgers' attacking style yield truly consistent results. But an increasingly likeable (particularly in the absence of a certain Luis Suárez) and industrious team are playing open, flowing football characterised by clever movement and interplay. It's an odd position to be in but, aside from some grumbles over the team's tendency to fade away from a game in the second half, at the moment watching Liverpool is actually fairly enjoyable.
Watching Liverpool play Manchester United, however, can rarely be described in such terms. These games are traditionally fraught and tense, and losing them hurts. Despite the obvious upgrade that Simon Mignolet has represented over a declining Pepe Reina, there's still a suspicion that this team has a soft underbelly just waiting for a superior side to expose it – with injury to Kolo Touré suggesting that a defence that coped admirably with the threat of Christian Benteke last week may not have similar success against Robin van Persie.
But frankly, when even just six points from a possible nine would represent a better start to the Premier League season than any in those last five years, this is one of those occasions when losing the north-west derby would be an inconvenience rather than a catastrophe – not least because, with neither Alex Ferguson nor Suárez anywhere near proceedings, it might also be the least acrimonious for quite some time. A sang-froid approach would usually be unthinkable when it comes to this match but this time around it might just be the key to some rare enjoyment after all. Seb Patrick