Coming off of international breaks, club sides are often a bit rusty. Hopefully, that is not the case in the first massive game of the European football weekend, as Manchester United travels to Anfield to take on Liverpool in a Northwest Derby early on Saturday afternoon.
Both teams were able to get some of their key players healthy in the weeks leading up to the break and during the international break, leaving Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish to make some big choices. Both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are expected to start and partner each other in the center of defense, while Liverpool legend and captain Steven Gerrard is finally 90 minutes fit.
However, who Gerrard replaces - if he cracks the starting XI at all - is up for debate. Liverpool have won their last two consecutive matches with a 4-4-2 shape that did not include Gerrard in it, and it would be understandable if Dalglish had no desire to change a winning team. The center of midfield of Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva finally seems to be clicking, as does the strike pairing of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez. Gerrard has always played at his best in an advanced role, usually drifting around behind one striker, and won't be able to drop directly into this system in his preferred spot.
Dalglish is going to have to drop a striker, drop Adam, or drop Dirk Kuyt to somehow fit Gerrard into the team, none of which sound like particularly great options. The most sensible option if Dalglish wants to pick his captain in a derby match no matter what would likely be having him play a deeper role than normal in place of Adam, but Gerrard's discipline when playing this role has been questionable in the past.
Ferguson has dilemmas of his own, but this is the case for every big match that Manchester United plays. The center of midfield doesn't have automatic starters, while one of Ashley Young or Nani could make way for Ferguson's big game two-way ace in the hole, Park Ji-Sung. Additionally, the options at right back are both endless and far from ideal for Ferguson, and picking the best matchup against Jose Enrique and Stewart Downing could be key for the Red Devils.
While Liverpool have not had great success in the league compared to their stature over the last couple of seasons, they've still been able to get results against Manchester United at Anfield, as the Red Devils have not won there since 2007. Vidic has been sent off three times in this fixture, while Gerrard usually seems to bring his best game when facing United at Anfield.
Tactically, Liverpool might have some trouble matching up with the front like of United, should Ferguson go with the expected pairing of 'Chicharito' Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney, with the latter player operating behind him in a role closer to that of a creative attacking midfielder than a striker. Lucas is in great form and should have some fantastic battles with Rooney, but some previous performances suggest that the Liverpool back line could struggle with the pace of Hernandez.
Of course, the matchup on the other end might favor the forwards as well. Nemanja Vidic is still one of the best defenders in the world, but his record against Liverpool is less than superb. His partner, Rio Ferdinand, has shown some signs of age over the last two seasons and while he's still quality, he's certainly not the bonafide world class player that he once was.
Liverpool vs. Manchester United
Game Date/Time: 1245 pm local, 7:45 am ET, Saturday, October 15
Venue: Anfield, Liverpool, England
TV: Sky Sports 2 (UK), ESPN2 (USA), TSN2 (Canada), Sky (Ireland), Fox Sports Premium (Latin America)
Projected Liverpool lineup (4-4-2): Reina; Enrique, Skrtel, Carragher, Kelly; Downing, Gerrard, Lucas, Kuyt; Carroll, Suarez
Projected Manchester United lineup (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Smalling; Park, Anderson, Carrick, Nani; Rooney; Hernandez
For more on the two teams involved, check out Liverpool blog Anfield Asylum and Manchester United blog The Busby Babe. We'll have live coverage of the Northwest Derby and all of the weekend's action in the Premiership in our English Premier League Week 8 StoryStream. For more on the entire world of football, head over to SB Nation Soccer.