LONDON, March 21- Having inadvertently sparked Liverpool’s mid-season rejuvenation with a 3-0 victory at Old Trafford in December, Manchester United visit Anfield in the Premier League on Sunday determined to suppress it.
Liverpool had taken only 21 points from a possible 45 prior to that trip to Manchester — losing six of their first 12 games — and the defeat left them 10 points below United in 10th place, seven points off the top four.
In the aftermath of a turbulent close season that saw Luis Suarez leave for Barcelona, it left manager Brendan Rodgers facing difficult questions about his capacity to take the team forward, but that bleak December day was to prove the catalyst for a spectacular turnaround.
Rodgers surprised observers at Old Trafford by sending Liverpool out with a three-man defence, but despite the final score, his side impressed, and it is with the same fluid 3-4-1-2 playing system that last season’s runners-up have revitalised their campaign.
They have gone 13 league games unbeaten since losing at United — winning eight of their last nine fixtures — and victory on Sunday would lift them above their fierce rivals and into the Champions League places.
It is a burst of form reminiscent of the spring surge that took them to within sight of last season’s title, but striker Daniel Sturridge says that Liverpool will prepare for United’s visit like any other game.
“Of course, it’s a rivalry, but it’s another three points and we’ll just approach the game as we always do — that’s the most important thing,” he told the Liverpool website.
“We’ll go into this game with the right mentality. We’ll look to play our football and to try to go out there and win the game.
“That’s the most important thing — to play our football. If we do that then hopefully everything will take care of itself.”
United’s own form dipped following the win over Liverpool and although they have only been beaten twice in their 13 games since, manager Louis van Gaal has come in for criticism over the lack of creativity in his side’s attacking play.
– Gerrard swansong –
However, United blew off the cobwebs last weekend with a stylish 3-0 dismantling of Tottenham Hotspur, standing them in good stead for a decisive run of games that also features encounters with Aston Villa, champions Manchester City and leaders Chelsea.
“I want to win against them again. It’s very important,” Van Gaal said of Sunday’s reunion with United’s most enduring foes.
“I think every player knows the importance of this game. We are in a very crucial stage and cannot lose.”
Van Gaal has Angel di Maria available again after a one-game suspension, but the Argentina winger is not certain to return to the starting XI after Juan Mata impressed against Spurs.
Left-back Luke Shaw is expected to return from a hamstring injury, but fellow defender Marcos Rojo is a doubt with a groin complaint and Jonny Evans is serving a ban for spitting at Newcastle United’s Papiss Cisse.
Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva faces a late fitness test, having spent six weeks on the sidelines with a groin problem, while Mario Balotelli is back after illness forced him to miss Monday’s 1-0 win at Swansea City.
Captain Steven Gerrard is also in contention to start, having returned as a substitute at the Liberty Stadium following a month-long absence with a hamstring injury.
It will be Gerrard’s last opportunity to face United — against whom he has scored nine times — before he leaves for the Los Angeles Galaxy, but with stand-in skipper Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen in excellent form, he may have to make do with a seat in the dug-out.
“He is like any other player,” said Rodgers.
“Of course he’d like to play, but his support for guys like Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen has been fantastic and his support to me as a captain has been incredible.”