MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 11: Patrice Evra of Manchester United walks with Luis Suarez of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on February 11, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
The North West derby is typically a toxic tie but when Manchester United travel to Anfield on Sunday to take on rivals Liverpool FC, the atmosphere is expected to be further charged and emotional. A tribute will take place for the ninety-six HIllsborough victims following the recent exposure of the shameful cover-up from that tragedy. There's also the potential flash-point between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez following from when the latter racially abused the former last season in this same fixture during a 1-1 draw in October. In the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in February, a Wayne Rooney brace led the Red Devils to a 2-1 victory. The two sides also met in January at Anfield when Liverpool knocked-out United from the FA Cup.
Form Guide: United entered the weekend 2nd in the table with nine points from four Premier League matches. After losing the season opener to Everton, Sir Alex Ferguson's side has gone on to win four successive games -- the latest being a 1-0 victory over Galatasaray at the past midweek during a UEFA Champions League group-stage match.
Form Guide: LOLiverpool's form is simply not good as Brendan Rodgers' side has only earned two points thus far from their four league matches. Their draws with Manchester City and Sunderland and their defeats by West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal FC have resulted in them entering the weekend 17th in the table. Liverpool is already five-games into their Europa League campaign with the latest result being a 5-3 away defeat of Swiss side Young Boys during the past midweek.
United: In goal, it'll be either David de Gea or Anders Lindegaard -- feel free to guess which one. In central-defense, the experienced duo of captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand is anticipated but Jonny Evans is in contention as well. At left-back, Patrice Evra is probable but Alexander Buttner is possible. At right-back, Rafael is the clear first-choice at the moment.
In central-midfield, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley, and Anderson are all in contention -- the former two started United's most recent matches from the past week so rotation is possible. Out wide, Antonio Valencia is expected as the right-winger but Nani is an option as well. On the left flank, expect either Danny Welbeck or Nani.
Liverpool: Rodgers' rested his entire current first-choice side at the midweek versus Young Boys. Therefore, his likely starting XI is fairly predictable:
Expect Pepe Reina in goal, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger as the central-defense partnership, Glen Johnson at left-back, and Martin Kelly at right-back. In central-midfield, Joe Allen and captain Steven Gerrard will be deployed as pivots while Jonjo Shelvey is anticipated to be in a more advanced role. The attacking trio will consist of Suarez, Fabio Borini, and Raheem Sterling -- the former two can pop up anywhere along the attacking line while the latter can be deployed on either wing.
* What approach will United take?: Everybody and their mother already know what approach Rodgers will take: a short-passing and pressing approach while keeping a high-line in the back in a 4-3-3 system. Liverpool's best match this season occurred when they were up against a disjointed City side that was playing in a 3-4-1-2 system. However, when Rodgers went up against counterattacking 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 systems deployed by West Brom, Arsenal, and most recently Sunderland, they struggled. Knowing this, how will manager Sir Alex Ferguson respond?
With the tie at Anfield, and with the home side likely to be energized from the start, it might not be a bad idea to take a conservative approach by defending cautiously and in a compact shape. If Fergie instructs his side to be proactive, then the start of the match is likely is be open and with the charged atmosphere, expect early bookings in this scenario. Also in this latter scenario, United's defensive shape will be a concern and this potentially could leave the likes of Ferdinand and Vidic -- two players who are not gifted with pace at this moment of their careers -- to cover too much space. Keep an eye on what United's approach is -- it'll likely dictate the pattern of the match.
* Kagawa should search for space between the lines: If United decide to take a conservative approach, then their key man on the counterattack might be Kagawa. The Japanese international is hopefully aware of how Arsenal's No.10 Santi Cazorla stayed high and exploited the space between the lines. When Liverpool's midfield trio pressed and moved higher up the pitch, Cazorla was left in space. From here, the Spaniard ended up being the key man as he scored a goal and assisted on another in Arsenal's 2-0 away victory. When possession is won by United, they likely would do well to quickly look for Kagawa as an outlet in the pockets of space that he does so well to find. From here, the talented No.10 is likely to ignite numerous dangerous attacks.
* Establish calmness and control: After the hopefully wonderful Hillsborough tribute, and after a no shenanigans pregame handshake, the environment is likely to turn vitriol quite quickly. United's midfield -- whether that be Carrick, Cleverley, or Scholes -- need to do their best to establish calm and slow down the tempo. Even if United take a counterattacking approach, this could help establish a bit of control and calm. From here, the Red Devils could methodically focus on keeping their defensive shape and then looking to counter by sending diagonals out to the flanks or by utilizing vertical passes into Kagawa between the lines. Accomplishing this could prevent Liverpool's intense pressing system from overrunning United in the early-stages of the match.
SB NATION STUDIOS PREVIEW
Ryan Rosenbatt, of SB Nation Soccer, offers up this video preview:
KO: 1:30pm BST, 8:30am EST | Anfield
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Mark Halsey
Odds: Liverpool 15/8, Draw 17/7, Manchester United 9/5