Unclear if superiority will be maintained
14 March ~ When Liverpool welcomed Manchester United to Anfield in September last year, it was a strange feeling for them to be doing so from a higher position in the Premier League. The assumption was, however, that despite United's rocky start under David Moyes, the natural order would re-assert itself before too long. That it has yet to do so – and that the gap between them has only grown significantly in the months since – is no less disconcerting as the clubs prepare to face one-another again, on Sunday.
Based purely on the table and form book, despite being an away game for Liverpool, this looks like a reasonable opportunity for them to keep in touch with the league leaders – and for United, potentially a fifth home defeat of the season, making for the highest such total in over a decade. But these games have a habit of going against form; if United and Moyes can take heart from anything it's that in years past, a win in this fixture for Liverpool could be among the highlights of otherwise mediocre seasons.
Not that United would relish the comparison, nor the suggestion that the two rivals' roles have suddenly become in any way reversed. Wayne Rooney commented this week that Liverpool's recent form compared to that of his own club was "particularly difficult" to take, but it will be even harder if this season becomes a pattern rather than an anomaly.
Thirty miles down the M62, meanwhile, you'd be hard pressed to find a rational Liverpool fan who thinks this might turn out to be the case. There have, after all, been optimistic yet ultimately false dawns at several other points in the last two decades, and the prevailing feeling is that 2014 is a rare, if welcome, shot at the title rather than the beginning of a sustained era of success.
Still, for the moment at least, it's an enjoyable time to be a Liverpool fan. The club are winning plaudits for playing entertaining football, and although some of the entertainment has admittedly derived from a slipshod defence, plenty of it is down to an irresistible forward line who are playing with verve and confidence, as if they might never click together this well again. The suggestion that United might have one eye on their upcoming Champions League second leg against Olympiakos is further cause for Liverpudlian optimism.
Prior to that match in September, I suggested that tensions between the two sides were cooling remarkably – and in the event, the game passed off with little in the way of incident or acrimony, something which seems more likely than not to repeat itself this weekend. While the north-west derby has long been heralded as the biggest match in English football, there's a growing sense that with bigger fish to fry on one side, and more worrying concerns to deal with on the other, it's dangerously close to becoming just another game for both clubs. Seb Patrick