Old Trafford result will eclipse Suarez-Evra sideshow
Such is the subplot between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra as Manchester United host Liverpool this Saturday that it takes time to refocus on the football matters at hand.
Suarez served an eight-match ban for racially abusing Evra in the previous Premier League encounter between these two north-west rivals in October, and the Liverpool striker is back in the side in time to face the United defender in the return fixture.
The prelude to this already competitive encounter was the 2-1 victory by Kenny Dalglish's side over United in the FA Cup at Anfield last month, where Evra was booed and Suarez was absent.
After completing his suspension, the Uruguayan subsequently made his return to the Liverpool side as they drew 0-0 with Tottenham last Monday.
Now it is time for the final performance of the season between these two teams, and once the baggage surrounding the match is stripped away, there are some signs that Liverpool could put a serious dent in Manchester United's title ambitions, while chasing fourth spot themselves.
"Liverpool and Manchester United won't be thinking of the Suarez-Evra affair," says former Liverpool defender and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen. "They will go into this game with only one thing on their minds and that is to get a result. The priorities are to finish first for United and to finish fourth for Liverpool.
"As a professional footballer or a manager, the minute you start thinking about anything other than the job in hand then you've got problems.
"To win a game of this magnitude against your biggest rivals gives you a real impetus and momentum at a crucial time of the season, while if you get beaten it is a real setback. That's why it's such a big game. Both managers will be enforcing that message in the dressing room: if we get a result in this match it can be a springboard for the rest of the season."
Although there have been a surprisingly high number of goals in games between the top teams this season, Liverpool have remained far less spectacular. While struggling in front of goal at times this season, they have also improved in defence.
Dalglish's side have the worst chance conversion rate in the Premier League, but they have kept 10 clean sheets. And while they are unbeaten at Anfield, they have taken significant scalps away from home this term, beating Chelsea twice, Manchester City in the Carling Cup and Arsenal.
Despite their frailties in front of goal, Liverpool have earned some some significant results in Suarez absence's with a counter-attacking system where Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt have flanked Andy Carroll.
Their goalscoring has actually improved while the former Ajax striker has been sidelined, rising slightly from an average of 1.12 goals per game to 1.29 goals per game. Signs, too, that Carroll might be starting to turn the corner after just five goals this season, leave Dalglish with a dilemma for the Old Trafford trip.
"I thought Suarez would start against Tottenham but he's been out since Boxing Day and when you have been out for that length of time it's like starting your season again," Hansen adds.
"Your sharpness and match fitness will be lacking, so Dalglish might well start him on the bench. Dalglish's tactics will probably be cautious to begin with and bringing Suarez on later in the game might fall into line with that approach."
Hansen believes that neither Dalglish nor Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson will leave out either Suarez or Evra for anything other than footballing reasons.
And despite his former team's problems in front of goal, Hansen says he is not too worried given that the defence is more solid than it has been for the last two seasons.
"The back four and the goalkeeper are always the cornerstone of a good side and it's certainly more important to get that right than anything else because that gives you the foundation to build on," he says.
"Even when Suarez was playing brilliantly at the start of the season his goal ratio wasn't brilliant. The keepers kept on making saves and he kept hitting the post and the bar, but sooner or later that will turn.
"What Liverpool really need is to turn somebody over by four or five goals and that might give them the impetus or momentum to get better at home."
That is unlikely to happen on Saturday at Old Trafford, but hands up who saw Manchester City's 6-1 win over United coming? A high-scoring game might not suit all, but it would certainly return football matters to the top of the agenda after a difficult period for both clubs.