James Lawton: Manchester United a huge test for Dalglish's Liverpool
It was the ultimate test of the talent and the depth and the psychology of England's two most powerful football clubs but tomorrow at Anfield it is hard not to see a more specific and compelling individual challenge.
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish is the man in the eye of it when Manchester United come to re-establish their authority at the top of the Premier League.
Last spring, his team delivered a massive blow to his ferocious rival Alex Ferguson as he sought a record 19th league title.
Liverpool triumphed amid much controversy — centring on Jamie Carragher's brutal tackle on Nani — and Ferguson was subsequently required to produce a masterclass of leadership to carry his team home.
Now, the extent of Dalglish's need to win again is hardly diminished by the relief granted by the Merseyside derby victory over 10-man Everton.
While Ferguson rolls on, strengthened on so many fronts by fresh evidence of his continued ability not only to win but to keep making teams filled with vital new ambition — witness Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley — Dalglish has to prove, sooner rather than later, that what he achieved when he returned to the game last season was more than a brief honeymoon.
While his US owners seek — it seems rather desperately — to push beyond collective bargaining for new and sharply bigger TV revenues, Dalglish has to provide a quick rebuttal to the claim that but for the brilliance of the move for Luis Saurez, Liverpool's signing policy would be falling into public relations disaster.
It is something that Ferguson is unlikely to leave alone should he achieve the kind of result which form suggests is most likely.
This week, Ferguson received a doctorate of letters from Manchester University for his services to the city but the academics might just have widened the citation to cover a certain genius for applying the boot to leading rivals.
The United manager took 10 years to see off Arsene Wenger. Now he talks of him with gentle sympathy, a sure sign that he believes that battle is over.
Will he hint at such face-value compassion in the wake of victory over Dalglish? Hardly. It would be far too soon and the enmity runs too deeply.
It was hardly reduced recently when Ferguson turned on Dalglish's tv presenter daughter, Kelly, chiding her for a “stupid question” when she touched on his selection plans for the embattled goalkeeper David de Gea.
But then that one ran back at least a young lifetime from the occasion when the Liverpool manager told reporters that they would get more sense from his recently born child than his fellow Glaswegian.
Go back further and we are among the old demons created when Dalglish declined to join Ferguson's 1986 mission with the Scottish team to a group of death in the Mexican World Cup.
Dalglish insisted it was because of the need for close-season surgery; others suspected it was due to Ferguson's failure to pick Alan Hansen. History now, but you won't have to look too hard to see the scar tissue at Anfield tomorrow.
A deeper worry for Dalglish is the suspicion that his expensive foray into the north east of England for Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson is going to prove a case of much too much, for too little.
Henderson was fast-tracked into the England team but remains a peripheral figure at Anfield, comfortable on the ball at times but steadfastly not dynamic. Carroll remains a work in progress.
Beside the often luminous Suarez, Carroll and Henderson appear to be occupying a much lesser planet. And if the skill of Charlie Adam is a reminder of why Dalglish made his move for him, it is so far unsupported by signs of team-changing influence.
For Dalglish, there may also be the additional complication tomorrow of easing Steven Gerrard back into the starting team and his role as the heartbeat — albeit an erratic one — of a team that must, for Dalglish's survival, begin to find its way back somewhere around the top of the English game.
By contrast, Ferguson is looking and sounding almost serene. His sense of well-being was certainly at optimum level when he dressed up in his new university togs this week. Retire? Yet again, the motion was rejected.
“I just don't think about retirement any more. It is just a matter of looking forward to being manager of Manchester United and not worrying about Alex Ferguson,” said Ferguson. “We have a good young team, a lot of youth at the club and a tremendous staff so it means I can keep on enjoying it.”
This was not a statement to engender warmth in the reception waiting for him on Merseyside. But among all his other challenges Dalglish, like the rest of football, is obliged to consider Ferguson's extraordinary journey from the wreckage of Champions League final defeat last spring to his big night in the varsity cloisters.
Some people thought, optimistically, that Ferguson might have been broken by the gap between Barcelona and his team, who had finished the domestic league so strongly.
Certainly he suggested, somewhat wearily, that Barca's coach Pep Guardiola would be mad to walk away from his power base at the Nou Camp.
“Having players like Messi and Xavi and Iniesta is the kind of situation that comes rarely in the football life,” said Ferguson.
Such wistfulness is an old memory now as Ferguson talks about new horizons. While Dalglish has been searching for some old belief, his fiercest rival has been creating fresh pressure on all who stand in his way.
One of the more vulnerable, at least for a little while, is surely Kenny Dalglish tomorrow.