Anfield's day of destiny
In between brickbats aimed at Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett and beach balls hurled at Pepe Reina by goading Manchester United fans, something Sir Alex Ferguson calls "The Game" will break out at Anfield.
The Spirit of Shankly protest group are plotting a march to emphasise, as if it were needed, the strength of feeling against Liverpool's American hierarchy while - in a faintly surreal development - United supporters will be searched for beach balls after Rafael Benitez's men were undone by this unlikely piece of club merchandise at Sunderland.
Distractions and sideshows are never required when Liverpool and Manchester United meet and the current criticism, much justified but some downright hysterical, surrounding Rafael Benitez makes them even less important this Sunday.
Benitez's circumstances are clear enough. He needs to end Liverpool's worst run since 1987 swiftly, and while a meeting with Manchester United provides danger it also provides opportunity and the best possible chance to blow away the clouds of crisis.
And yet, in among the politics and behind-the-scenes pantomime that has replaced what used to be called "The Liverpool Way", it should not be ignored that the champions have not always been convincing themselves this season.
It does not do to question the team that sits on top of the Premier League once more, and Ferguson's faith in Manchester United's growing maturity and his strength of squad is backed up by how they have held firm as Liverpool and Chelsea have slipped recently.
But even seasoned and partisan Old Trafford observers would have to agree there has been an uncharacteristic vulnerability in defence, a fault that can be attributed to the uncertain goalkeeping of Ben Foster and the lack of match fitness and sharpness of Rio Ferdinand.
United needed to call on their time-honoured knack of escapology to fashion a draw from an awful display against Sunderland and it was sobering to witness the panic stations as they held on for victory against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford last Saturday.
The Champions League win against CSKA Moscow in Russia, sealed by the rapidly improving Antonio Valencia, had a reassuring "job done" air from a reshaped team and will have provided huge satisfaction for Ferguson.
Sunday's meeting between Man Utd and Liverpool will be instructive on many levels
It was inevitable that United would take time to grow accustomed to the flair and brilliance that travelled with Cristiano Ronaldo when he left for Real Madrid, and there has been a workmanlike, pragmatic approach to their work this season.
But with Wayne Rooney in full cry, and Ryan Giggs again extending a wonderful Indian Summer to his career, they have managed to compensate to lead the pack once more.
Sunday provides a pivotal moment, even though we are talking about a season in its infancy and the glint in Ferguson's eye as he pondered this trip to enemy territory proved the point.
If United can go to Liverpool and win, revenge for two defeats last season will be a small matter when placed against the wider context. Ferguson is unlikely to have forgotten the way Liverpool - and in particular Fernando Torres - made short work of a defence that had made Premier League history in a 4-1 thrashing at Old Trafford, but a win at Anfield would soothe those painful memories.
Victory would be an emphatic assertion of authority by United. It would put them 10 points of clear of Liverpool and make pre-season predictions of a return of the title to Anfield (who was it who made those bold claims?) an even more distant prospect.
Ferguson will give Rooney every chance of recovering from a calf injury because he will be the main thrust of their game plan against an uncertain Liverpool defence. Darren Fletcher falls into the same category because he is implictly trusted to exert influence amid the midfield mayhem of such encounters.
If Rooney comes up short, what price the intriguing inclusion of Michael Owen in Manchester United's line-up against Liverpool at Anfield? The once unthinkable prospect.
Owen admits he is braced for a hostile reception given his perceived treachery in crossing this barrier of hostility - but how about some respect from The Kop for a magnificent servant to Liverpool?
It is not too great an exaggeration to say Owen won the FA Cup for Liverpool on his own against Arsenal in 2001. Is it too much to ask that this should be an abiding memory, not acrimony based on a perfectly logical career decision to join United after it became clear Liverpool boss Benitez did not want him back at Anfield?
Owen was not disloyal to Liverpool. He took a chance he could barely believe when Ferguson came calling.
United will start as favourites, particularly given Liverpool's run of four successive defeats. Benitez has escaped from turmoil before with big results, and with Fernando Torres expected to return, no-one should bet against him doing it again.
This is a big moment for Benitez, however, because the current discontent is different from previous turbulence. A major change was criticism aimed directly at the manager when he replaced Yossi Benayoun with Andriy Voronin in the loss to Lyon.
If not exactly untouchable, Benitez has been shielded by the antipathy towards Hicks and Gillett and a reservoir of goodwill built on the back of the 2005 Champions League win and other good works in Europe.
He also formed an adhesive bond with supporters who saw him as a fellow struggler in the fight against Hicks and Gillett, especially when it was revealed they had approached Jurgen Klinsmann behind his back to succeed him as manager. This cannot, however, last forever.
There is now the increasingly obvious realisation that Benitez has not been successful in building an undercard to the main protagonists at Anfield. If Ferguson can be pleased with the strength of his squad, Benitez cannot and it is all his own handiwork.
If a cornered Liverpool can come out with a win, Benitez will be the hero once more. If they do not, then the belief that he has reached a critical point in his tenure will be reinforced.
I do not believe that Benitez will lose his job if Liverpool lose on Sunday. Only a defeat of catastrophic proportions would raise a doubt and that is still unlikely in front of an Anfield gallery that will be at fever pitch because of the current difficulties.
The potential failure to reach the last 16 of the Champions League will be more damaging, along with any distance opening up between Liverpool and the Premier League's top four. Liverpool's place in that quartet is almost a non-negotiable, albeit unspoken, part of the lucrative contract Benitez signed a few months ago.
To bring some measure and perspective to the speculation swirling around Benitez, a win on Sunday would leave them only four points behind United and qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League is still on the agenda. This alone emphasises the potential for a sea change in Liverpool's season should they win on Sunday.
Owner Gillett, who has been in town to sample the speculation for himself this week, has delivered a vote of confidence that was strident in tone, perhaps helped by the potential of having to pay Benitez around £20m should he and Hicks decide to dispense with the manager's services.
A Liverpool victory would bring calm to the troubles and a United win would inflict potentially fatal damage on a club Ferguson still sees as huge rivals.
So forget the brickbats and the beachballs. The big events will take place on the Anfield turf.
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