Victor Lindelof and Sadio Mane.

Why Anfield match could end up meaning so much

Liverpool versus Manchester United - the game that stirs the passions more than any other and so often a benchmark for the merits of both sides.

Growing up in the 1980s, as the Merseysiders dominated at home and abroad, it was always difficult to take. Yet United could still at least match our greatest rivals on occasion, coming from behind with 10 men to draw 3-3 in 1988 extended a run of eight Division One games unbeaten on Liverpool's home patch. Preceding this, though, was a run of seven straight losses so, even if the FA Cup had provided great joy in the 1970s, I am probably thankful I am too young to recall the games then.

However, there was always a sense that the bigger picture was that our foes had the better team or, if that was impossible to admit to, certainly the superior consistency. There were glimpses of this changing which, ultimately, proved false dawns until Sir Alex Ferguson really made his mark at Old Trafford.

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Diego Forlan and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
United have enjoyed some classic wins over Liverpool at Anfield.

This challenge of being able to knock Liverpool 'off their perch' appeared to creep closer, only to be shot down in flames at times. The 4-0 loss at Anfield in 1990, after we'd lifted the first trophy of the Sir Alex reign (the FA Cup), was a jolt, particularly as former Red Peter Beardsley helped himself to a hat-trick. Yet nothing could have been more painful for a United fan, at the time, than the 2-0 defeat a couple of years later.

Even Ian Rush scored against us (something he never did). This was the final nail in the coffin of our sustained title bid in 1991/92, when it appeared clear to most that we were finally able to call ourselves the best team in the country. How the home fans mocked as this latest failure was confirmed in the worst possible way. After Leeds United had scrambled their way to victory at Sheffield United earlier in the day, scoring goals in the most ludicrous of circumstances, it was our rivals from across the Penines who would get their hands on the title.

And it felt terrible. Absolutely terrible. So near, yet so far didn't even begin to describe the emotion.

The Premier League ushered in a new era and things changed - almost like there could be a line in the sand with that terrible memory of 1992. And that, pretty much, is how it panned out. Mark Hughes and Brian McClair scored to take the points on our first visit to Anfield in the new division (Rush netted again for the hosts) and, although there were still disappointments to follow in the fixture, it appeared that United were now the top dogs.

As had been the case with us in the 1980s, Liverpool could raise their game for the big occasion but the Reds were the team winning the league and the trophies. Anfield no longer held the same sense of trepidation - we scored 11 times in four visits there between 1997 and 1999.

Furthermore, we won five out of six at Liverpool, there were some unforgettable moments - think Gary Pallister, John O'Shea, Wayne Rooney, Diego Forlan. It was glorious but, inevitably, it had to come to an end.

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Wayne Rooney at Anfield.
Do you remember this Wayne Rooney winner on Merseyside?

If there was one game that produced the starkest wake-up call of the post-Sir Alex era, it was the 3-0 loss to Liverpool at Old Trafford in March, 2014. The balance of power had definitely shifted, even if the visitors would still have to wait to end their long run without a title.

Steven Gerrard could even afford the luxury of a missed penalty, after scoring two other spot-kicks, and for all the defiance of the crowd that afternoon, it felt very much like another bookmark. Our time at the top had passed and our rivals from along the M62 were on the way up. It completed the double over United for Brendan Rodgers's side and it was tough to bear.

Although two wins at Anfield followed, think Juan Mata's double and another Rooney winner, during Louis van Gaal's time in charge, the bigger picture, which was impossible to ignore, was that Liverpool were starting to put things together and challenge for the league again.

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Juan Mata,
Mata made it Juanfield with his incredible double in a fabulous victory.

Since that Rooney-fuelled win in early 2016, things have been bleak in this fixture for all Reds followers. We've only scored once and that was a gift for Jesse Lingard during a 3-1 defeat. You can even chuck a 2-0 reverse in the Europa League into the mix.

The pendulum has clearly swung in favour of Jurgen Klopp's men, it would be churlish to argue otherwise. Their lengthy wait for the title over, the fear was they could embark on another period of dominance but, instead, here we are in January of another unusual season with another team sitting at the top of the table. United, three points clear, having now played the same number of games as the current champions.

However, few seem to rate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side as genuinely strong contenders. The bookmakers feel we are pretty distant third-favourites to come out on top in May, with Manchester City now odds-on across the board. Despite winning every single one of our away matches in the division this season, bar the draw at Leicester City, most pundits remain unconvinced.

90 in 20: Burnley 0 United 1Video

Maybe they are right. Ole has been quick to play down expectations and remains level headed when it comes to being in top spot with so much football left to play, including some very tough trips on the road, starting on Sunday.

The expectation is Klopp's side will put United in our place by coming out on top in this latest battle between England's two most famous clubs and reclaiming leadership of the division. Perhaps, though, United have not been getting the credit we deserve - it is certainly a view that is easy to formulate as an ardent supporter. What if we can take our confidence into this huge contest and prove a gap that existed between ourselves and Liverpool and City, which was admitted by the boss at the start of the campaign, has been redressed?

What if United can go toe-to-toe with the champions and match them on their own patch? Would it be a game we will remember, in years to come, as another turning point? Even if we were to gain all three points, everybody accepts it would still take a Herculean effort to get our hands back on the trophy, ahead of schedule in Solskjaer's rebuild. But it would, at the very least, be a statement. And one that can give all Reds fans the hope that the tide could be turning again in our favour.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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