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Manchester United vs. Liverpool is as must-win as September games can be

It's far too early for either Manchester United or Liverpool to be thinking that they absolutely have to win on Saturday. But it would be really, really helpful if they could.

The departure of Alex Ferguson from Manchester United has had many consequences, some small (Manchester United are now on Twitter!) and some fairly large (Manchester United have an almost entirely new squad!). But ahead of Saturday's evening game at Old Trafford, in which United host Liverpool, we should acknowledge one significant change: these games, perhaps the largest exercise on mutual hostility and contempt that the Premier League has to offer, have suddenly started seeming very important to the men in the dugouts.

They always matter, of course; it would take more than one extremely competent, angry Scotsman to draw the hot blood from the fixture itself. But Liverpool spent most of Ferguson's mid-to-late reign at United competing for third and fourth, not first, and Ferguson spent most of that time entirely secure in his position. To the man with safest job in football, to the perchknocker general, a loss to Liverpool was always an irritant, but rarely a disaster.

To the men that have followed Ferguson, however, Liverpool games have been extremely significant indeed. What good will Louis van Gaal has at the moment can be traced, in large part, to last season's pair of victories: The first, at Old Trafford, served as an exorcism of what had come before; while the latter was perhaps the best performance of United's best run of form, one that more or less capped off a season of (limited) renewal. Meanwhile, for David Moyes, an early defeat at Old Trafford was the first sign that "hang on, this lot might be rubbish," and a 3-0 humbling in March the confirmation that "yes, this lot are properly rubbish."

For Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, that win was just another step towards an inevitable title. But last season's losses were more significant. The first marked the low point in the league -- following United's 3-0 victory, Liverpool dropped to tenth -- but was the debut of the 3-4-3 formation that Rodgers had knocked together in the shed at the end of his garden. Sixteen unbeaten league games later, Liverpool were heading for a strong end to the season ... until United arrived, won at Anfield, and Rodgers' contraption collapsed.

All of which brings us to this weekend, and to a game that Van Gaal has promised to win. The two teams sides have had identical starts when it comes to results -- seven points from two wins, a draw and a loss -- but more than that, have shared a general sense of inadequacy in performance. Both have been unconvincing and largely uninspiring in their victories, and at moments profoundly shambolic in defeat. Liverpool have perhaps had more variety in their performance levels, since they both mustered one half of largely coherent football against Arsenal and contrived to lose 3-0 at home to West Ham, but neither side can be happy with how they've begun the season.

What happens if United lose, in the style we can reasonably expect? Well, the rumblings about behind-the-scenes discontent will get louder, the questions about Wayne Rooney's form will get sharper, the concerns about the depth of the squad will get, er, deeper, and the general contempt about the state of United's football will only increase. For United are really quite boring at the moment, and while boring sides can get away with it for a while if they win, if they lose, then they're in trouble.

And for Liverpool, should they fail in the fashion that we can, based on the season so far, predict? Different questions, but the same insistent increase in volume. Does Rodgers really know how to arrange a defence? Does Dejan Lovren really know what a defence is? Does Rodgers not know who Mamadou Sakho is? Why are they hitting all those long balls at Christian Benteke? And why did they pay so much money for him? And why did they lose, 6-1, to Stoke? And so on, and so on. Such is the drill.

In a sense, for these two teams, the season begins here after the soft launch for the first few weeks. The transfer window is shut, the squads are set, and the managers have had a couple of weeks to look at the problems and think about how to fix them. Which is why Saturday's result could be exceptionally important. It's probably not a must-win in the strict sense, since it's far too early in the season for such demands. But it's probably a must-win in a slightly looser way, an it-would-be-really-really-really-good-to-win game for United, and a really-definitely-don't-want-to-lose one for Liverpool.

It's of atmosphere, and the toxicity of same. Particularly since there are some tricky games coming up for both teams, along with the beginning of their European campaigns. Ultimately, neither side are yet in intense conversation with Crisis; that would be terribly premature. But both are definitely sitting in Crisis' waiting room, flicking through the magazines and gratefully accepting a complimentary cup of tea.


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