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Liverpool must go for broke

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BBC Sport blog editor | 09:15 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Liverpool's players only just stopped short of forming an orderly queue to talk up their chances of rekindling the flames of a flickering title challenge at Manchester United on Saturday.

And who could blame them? This was Liverpool basking in the warm afterglow of a blistering execution of Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday.

All delivered the same message as they prowled the corridors of Anfield, optimism shaped by a power surge of confidence and adrenalin following a performance Real found impossible to live with.

Liverpool and manager Rafael Benitez will need to hold every one of those positive thoughts as they visit Old Trafford for what now represents the defining moment of their Premier League season.

And if they needed a dry run to demonstrate exactly what is required to fashion the win that is their only option at Manchester United, the display against Real provided it.

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This fixture is never anything other than compelling - but this one comes with so many added extras and sub-plots to give it even more needle than normal.

It is the first meeting of Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson since the Liverpool manager's ill-timed decision to pour a bucket of verbal caustic soda over his Old Trafford counterpart's head in January.

It was an attack wide-ranging enough to take in Ferguson's attitude to fixture lists, the FA's Respect campaign and referees, so this is a day of reckoning in more ways than one.

Benitez's outburst co-incided with Liverpool faltering badly in the league and United hitting a roll that has put them seven points clear at the top with a game in hand.

But the relative simplicity of Liverpool's task - win or bust - makes both them and Benitez dangerous opponents because he has proved a master of producing results to match specific occasions.

The template to follow was on show at Anfield on Tuesday.

Liverpool played at a relentlessly high-tempo and with an untamed positive approach that they have either been unwilling or unable to produce with regularity this season.

The opposition was suffocated in possession and put to the test in all parts of the pitch - and on the rare occasions they were probed at the back, Liverpool were resolute.

Liverpool proved they had all this in them. After watching several sterile Liverpool performances this season, it almost came as a shock to the system to see such a transformation - the freedom of expression was almost unrecognisable.

Now Liverpool need to prove it all again at Old Trafford because if they drape the cloak of caution over their game again the credits can start rolling on their title chances.

Benitez will not cast conservatism aside completely because it is not in his psyche, and to do so is suicidal against Manchester United. He needs, however, to re-create Liverpool's Tuesday mood.

The default option for Benitez on these occasions is invariably containment followed by frustration for the opposition - with the brilliance of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard providing potency further forward.

And make no mistake, in that pair Liverpool have world-class talent capable of giving them the result they crave.

Under normal circumstances Liverpool might be content with a draw at Old Trafford, but this would only be a marginal improvement on useless to their title hopes given United's current advantage.

Liverpool's cause will be helped by being up against a manager in Ferguson who never allows a negative thought to cross his mind. And much as United might shy away from the notion, there will be extra pleasure for them in finishing off Benitez's Premier League campaign after he chose to take them to task so publicly.

After watching both teams in Champions League action this week, it was Liverpool who provided the more impressive performance. They barely misplaced a pass at Anfield while United were gripped by uncharacteristic uncertainty for a portion of their win against Inter Milan.

The change in mood around the Liverpool camp was almost tangible, but it is easier said than done to back up bold words with actions at Old Trafford. One thing is certain though - if Liverpool are not confident after Tuesday they never will be.

United were in more subdued mood, but there is a growing sense of destiny about their season and the sight of Liverpool alone will fire up the mood in Ferguson's camp.

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Ferguson will hope Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic do a better job on Torres than Real's pairing of an ageing Fabio Cannavaro and the hapless Pepe. It will also be intriguing to see if United draft in the enegy of Darren Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park, favourites of Ferguson when industry is need to go alongside artistry.

United know a win will leave Liverpool too far off the pace and deliver another blow to Chelsea's hopes. It would be out of character for Ferguson to place his team on the back foot, and why should he with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov at his disposal.

Logic suggests United must be favourites with home advantage and an all-round greater strength of squad at their disposal.

But Benitez and Liverpool have defied logic before - all of which adds to the potent cocktail that makes up the most important Premier League match of the season.

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