It doesn't get more bitter than this. Manchester United vs Liverpool is founded on hatred. It's not because this is England's premier football fixture, it's that we love to hate them as much as they love to hate us.
When Luis Suarez (God rest his teeth) scored Liverpool's third in this fixture last season, Old Trafford burst into a chain of singing that bewildered neutrals. Here were the Scousers ratting all over Old Trafford and yet the chanting in the stands was as though we'd won the European Cup. The explanation is simple. Well, sort of. It was the equivalent of taking a mouthful of vodka to ease the pain during a circumcision operation without the relief of anaesthetics. For those fans at the stadium that day, the pain of watching Liverpool hold a three goal lead on our turf could only be erased by bellowing out their lungs in chanting their way to the full time whistle.
That result was one of only two in the nightmare reign of David Moyes that Sir Alex highlighted as being 'annoyed' at.
In a somewhat role reversal, Liverpool make the short trip to the M16 9 months on, looking every bit as poor as United were that Sunday in March. United on the other hand head into this fixture looking for a 6th league win on the trot and as the premier league's in-form team. It's a given that form doesn't count for anything in derbies but whichever patched up United side lines up against Liverpool on Sunday, confidence will be far greater in those in red.
Without really being consistent in performances, Louis van Gaal seems to be on that run of wins that usually follows a run of bad form in his early management of any side he's been in charge of. However, the nature of the premier league is way too toxic to muster 18 games on a winning run that he managed say at Bayern Munich or the 16 on the bounce at Barcelona. That is not least because there is not much of a gap between a strong team in England and a weaker side thanks to the equittable distribution of TV money. If Champions-elect Chelsea who apparently have a balanced squad have seen an 8 point lead over Manchester City cut to just three in the space of 4 weeks, then how much of a task is it for a United team that picks up an injury every week? The important thing though is to bounce back from every disappointing result with a new run of wins. It was always Sir Alex's post match interview message after a defeat that the next step is to bounce back. When our run ends, that ought to be the message, and not the negativity that will undoubtedly hit the media columns.
BUT it's still on and who's to say it cannot go on forever? (@£₩!) Anyhow, its about that time that we start counting our fingers and figuring out how far second place is for us. That ought to be the next target. You cannot rest on your laurels in this sport. Whereas Southampton and the chasing pack are not yet far enough from us to dismiss them, we finally have the top of the league in sight. Chelsea now only has an 8 point lead over us......LESS THAN THREE GAMES! Whereas its almost impossible for two sides to simultaneoulsy slip up to allow a third side to take initiative, it would be really fun giving those two a major headache in the title race. As the third placed side, we now have a major say in where the title ends up. It's increasingly becoming difficult to beat United which means that of the top 2, the side that fails to take maximum points off United will lose major ground...more like the role Chelsea played last season to determine where the title would end up.
Obviously there's no pride in playing side-kick to major honours but think about it....weren't we supposed to be fighting to get in the Champions League for the entirity of this season? If we feel that we've achieved that 5 months ahead of schedule, then why not take out practice sessions at the summit battles that will be on the expectation card for next season?
Ultimately, it comes down to one game at a time. Whereas it's pointless to second guess the manager's tactics for the game, we've been solid with a back four of any kind at home. If Angel Di Maria is passed fit, a diamomd formation in the middle featuring Carrick and Fellaini or Herera would see us at our explosive best. If he takes the cautious 3-5-2 approach, then like Monday night, we could be forced to live through a nail biting period in the match. That will not be because Liverpool are good but because the 3 at the back system is not yet quite home with many of our players.
To be fair to the boss, it is increasingly the case that in the absence of Shaw, he can only play Ashley Young in the wing back role. It seems like it forces his hand. There is a danger though when you have space on the wings and you are up against a winger of the pace of Raheem Sterling. Again, a detail you expect will not get past a manager as detailed in his preparation as Louis van Gaal.
All that notwithstanding, on a derby day of any kind, not least this one, the players owe the fans. It gets personal on Sunday.