Sir Alex Ferguson: Liverpool face long road back to the top
It was not intended as a barb from the man who has propelled so many of them down the M62 with venom over the years, but it will hurt Liverpool no less.
Sir Alex Ferguson had just been asked whether Anfield's patience with its latest, young manager – the eighth in the Scot's 26 years of combat with the old foe – was gratifying to see. "Patience is a rare commodity in football and if he [Brendan Rodgers] is getting it, he is very lucky," Ferguson replied. "And I think that is terrific if the fans are prepared to be patient because it is going to require patience, you know. Because it is a long road back to what they used to be and it is going to require patience…"
The wise heads around L4 have long since reached this conclusion. Jamie Carragher posited the notion five years ago that it might take Ferguson's retirement to allow Liverpool to challenge Manchester United, triggering the same slump that Kenny Dalglish's first departure did at Anfield.
"We may simply have to wait for the circle to turn," Carragher said, and when you look at the 21 points that divide the clubs this weekend – never in Ferguson's United era has the gulf been greater at this stage of the season – you have to think he is right.
Carragher will almost certainly never fill what he has described as the "gaping hole" in his medal collection – the Premier League. Steven Gerrard, who was subjected to a one-man United tap-up operation by Gary Neville at the 2004 European Championships when Chelsea were trying to capitalise on Anfield turmoil and poach him, must be resigning himself to the same fate.
Liverpool being Liverpool, Ferguson declined the opportunity yesterday to suggest that Rodgers is making progress. "It is difficult to say," he observed. "When a young manager goes to Liverpool it is a challenge. They haven't won the League for 20-odd years. It is a long time for a club like Liverpool. So [for] anyone going in there it is a challenge. And it is difficult to measure any Liverpool side at the moment with Liverpool sides of the past, you know."
But this was not an entirely pugnacious performance from the United manager. Asked why he was so confident that he could see off Manchester City's title threat, he replied that he was not confident, only "hopeful". And though he cited the competitive nature of the Premier League for that, opposition coaches and managers are privately discussing the vulnerability of that United defence and, in the case of at least one rival, the same trait in David de Gea. Nemanja Vidic's return has not created indomitability. Only Swansea City, of the Premier League's top 12, have conceded more goals at home this season than United.
Such are the grounds for more Liverpool optimism than on perhaps any other Old Trafford visit since an imperious Fernando Torres destroyed Vidic to give them their last win there, four years ago. It is also why tomorrow's encounter really does feel like a symmetrical Robin van Persie versus Luis Suarez shoot-out.
Ferguson was at a momentary loss when asked for points of comparison between the two runaway contenders for the 2012-13 Player of the Year award and apart from being the men who have repeatedly single-handedly rescued their managers since August, their periods in Dutch football are all that join them.
Statistically, EPL Index makes a case for Van Persie edging it in the competition between them. Shooting accuracy: Van Persie 43 per cent, Suarez 34 per cent; assists Van Persie six, Suarez three; pass completion 81 per cent to 76 per cent. Suarez is ahead on clear chance conversion by 50 per cent to 39 per cent though Van Persie is the one you would stake your house on burying an opportunity and this is where he has the edge. Suarez can snatch at chances which – because he has often created them – tend to present themselves more chaotically. Both players drop deep to help link play, though Suarez wins on sheer work rate.
More incontrovertible is the fact that Rodgers would welcome the performance minus the pantomime where Suarez is concerned, whatever he might say in public. "I think the lad is laden with controversy – I don't know whether he enjoys it or not, but it is something we hope we don't suffer from ourselves," Ferguson said of Suarez yesterday. The acidic parenthesis is there for all to see, but Ferguson is right that United do not suffer the pains of controversy from their man. He evaded the question of whether Suarez is a better player this season as deftly as he swerved all transfer market talk. For the record, Liverpool captain Gerrard feels United "probably have the best player in the league on current form".
The large divide between the two sides owes everything to the quality of players around those two strikers, though. Consider the strike force of Wayne Rooney (missing tomorrow), Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Van Persie – arguably the best in the Premier League era. Then remember that Rodgers is simply glad to have three genuine strikers to draw on tomorrow, with Fabio Borini returning from injury as new signing Daniel Sturridge prepares for his first Premier League football since November.
It is the way Van Persie draws his partners into the game which delights Ferguson as much as his goals. "I don't think we appreciated the full use of him [in that respect]. He has become really important to us," he said.
Perhaps the most remarkable of the United manager's observations was that players no longer have the powers of concentration to sit down and watch a full 90-minute match video. "Going back 20 years, we gave them a full video of the game," he said. "We don't do that now because the concentration of players watching a full game is not there. But if you condense it into various aspects of our opponents then it works and that's what we do."
The point about Suarez is that you can't take your eye off him for a minute. Tomorrow, Liverpool will believe he can help them take a small step on the long road back to where they once belonged.