Liverpool have slipped from relevance in Manchester United's world in recent years. It's mostly a laugh, but it's also slightly sad. The old tales of rivalries and legendary games and Victorian ship canals have lost their luster through the realities of balance-sheets, but only a fool would deny that the games don't have the same fire about them.
Now, for one night only, comes an important game between the two. It's not an exaggeration to say it's the most important 'most important game between the two sides for years' for years, at least from United's perspective. Even more important than the 2008-09 struggles (which, since both battles were won by Liverpool in a war which was pretty comprehensively won by United, turned out to be not that important at all.)
The reason for this, is that the potential is there for it to make or break David Moyes.
Manager's tenures can often be decided quite early on, in key games. André Villas-Boas' Chelsea reign was a prime example of this -- suffering early defeats to Manchester United and Liverpool didn't help, but during the same period as a 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal effectively sealed his fate -- although he was not sacked until some months later. The early humiliations cast a doubt over him that could not be removed and it was only ever going to take another poor run to see his reign end. The players gave up on fighting for him, making another spell of bad form inevitable and irreversible - at least, reportedly, according to Roman Abramovich.
United fans should not be so naive as to get carried away with the idea that their dressing room culture is more noble, civilized or patient than that of Chelsea. Footballers are footballers, and Moyes comes into the team without a record capable of doing his talking for him. The game against Chelsea was one opportunity to preemptively dispel any doubts with a comprehensive win ... or suffer such a potentially poisonous defeat. Negativity from both sides ensured neither took place, and so we come to Anfield.
This is one of those occasions where football's historic, romantic and sentimental side can have a profound and powerful effect on the reality. There are several ways for Moyes to continue to roll on as normal -- United have seen some timid surrenders at this ground in recent years, and a drab 1-0 or 2-1 defeat would be a mere flesh wound. A draw would be shrugged off easily, but Liverpool have started in reasonable form and appear to have some belief about them so a 3-0 defeat and suddenly things begin to look bad.
Equally, reverse that by really routing Liverpool at their own ground, and any crises on the domestic front are a lot less likely to happen. United could still falter thereafter, but Moyes will give United a taste of the promised land. The players will be less likely to be demoralised by future poor results, and the fans will be far less reticent to any negativity from within or outside the club.
It won't be the death-or-glory showdown that it may be painted as, because there is the prospect (a likely one after witnessing Monday's display) that pragmatism and dourness will take over, but as some other dour Protestant once said, "no plan survives contact with the enemy."
Even more true for Manchester United when that enemy is Liverpool at Anfield.
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Shinji Kagawa did not have an excellent season last year. On this, we are agreed. Where we seem to differ is on whose fault this is. One assumes that several other underachievers in United's ranks would be keen to acquire the ability to have all shortcomings laid at the manager's door, as has seemed to happen with Kagawa. Partly, this has been a result of the words of the sainted Jurgen Klopp, he of the broken heart to see Kagawa shunted out on the left wing.
Kagawa is a two-footed player who has a fine touch, is not without pace, and is skilled when running with the ball at his feet. There is absolutely no reason on earth why he cannot be an effective player out wide, just as David Silva, Juan Mata, Oscar and many others are. If there is some bizarre reason that he can't do it, then it is his own fault and arguably United's for buying him -- they can't afford to be that inflexible in their options.
Let's just assume, as all evidence and reason would suggest, that Kagawa can indeed function perfectly well on the wing. That leads us to wonder why so many are reluctant to admit he wasn't successful. Partly, this may be a desire for Kagawa to be a player he is not. Defence-splitting passes are within his capabilities, but he functioned at Dortmund as more of an auxiliary striker rather than a classic number 10.
There are other reasons -- an early injury which hindered his settling into the team among them -- but Kagawa simply went absent too often last year. This happened regardless of position, whether he was in his favoured role (out wide) or as one of the middle two in Alex Ferguson's bizarre and brief diamond experiment. Much of the blame has to lie with the player himself, although his first year was always going to be tricky.
This year, Kagawa has to start performing better himself. Functioning more as one of United's forward line rather than their midfield, the addition of some extra players to United's long-running weak spot ought to help him focus on his job rather than trying to become involved in taking control of the game (something he proved largely inept at.) It's no coincidence that his best performance was one in which he bagged a hat-trick -- that is his job, and has always been his talent.
He just has to show he can do it a little bit more.