SINGAPORE: The biggest rivalry in English football takes centre stage on Sunday (Oct 20) as Manchester United hosts Liverpool at Old Trafford.
But even if the home team manages a welcome win, it will not mask the feeling that the two clubs are heading in different directions on and off the pitch.
United was the dominant force in the country from 1993 to 2013, winning 13 Premier League titles in that time, and becoming the most popular English team around the world including in Asia.
Yet, the crown has slipped at home with cracks appearing.
To make matters worse, bitter rival Liverpool - a club dominant in the 1970s and 1980s but fell off its perch after winning its last league title in 1990 - is flying.
On Oct 5, Liverpool defeated Leicester City to make it eight wins out of eight in the Premier League this season to go eight points clear at the top.
The next day, Manchester United lost to relegation-threatened Newcastle to slip down into 12th position for its worst start to the season for 30 years.
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Ahead of Sunday's game, Sky Sports pundit Danny Mills picked a combined Manchester United and Liverpool starting eleven (i.e. the best 11 of the 22 players) that did not feature even one United player.
MANCHESTER UNITED IN POOR SHAPE
“This Manchester United team is the worst I have seen in a number of years,” said former England striker turned BBC pundit Alan Shearer. “That team at the minute is awful. Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer, the current head coach] needs an incredible amount of money to get the team anywhere near where they feel they should be.”
Yet an incredible amount of money, almost £1 billion according to reports in the summer, has been spent by United since the last title win in 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as head coach after 27 years of sustained success.
Since then the club has been drifting. Ferguson’s fellow Scot David Moyes was appointed as a successor but didn’t last a season. High-profile coaches Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho followed but were also sacked.
The club did not mount a serious title challenge despite the huge investment on new players such as Paul Pogba (signed in 2016 for £89 million, then a world-record fee), Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
The latter two have already left with Pogba, perhaps the team’s one genuine world-class star, hinting that he wants to exit Old Trafford too.
Solskjaer replaced the fired Mourinho in December and represented another change in direction. His coaching resume is limited but he was a popular former player.
After an initial bounce in results, the Norwegian - who famously scored the winning goal for United in the last minute of the 1999 UEFA Champions League final against Barcelona - was given the job on a permanent basis in March but results have suffered since.
The club has taken just 14 points from the last 15 league games.
FOOTBALL IS JUST NOT WHAT IT ONCE WAS
The football is also not what it was. Manchester United have long been associated with an exciting attacking style but United has scored just nine goals in eight games this season - less than half of Liverpool's total.
“The quality is not right and the depth of the squad is not good enough,” said Gary Neville, a former Manchester United player and now a prominent media pundit.
“The recruitment has been woeful for many years. They’ve been all over the place with different managers bringing in different players. They now need to fix a style, fix a way of recruiting and go and get the players. They need five to six top players and they are going to cost a lot of money.”
The club is now a shadow of its former glorious self.
AN EXCITING TEAM IN LIVERPOOL
The opposite is happening just 50km to the west in the port city of Liverpool. The club has a charismatic, popular and inspirational leader.
Since Jurgen Klopp took the job in 2015, the German coach has built an exciting team led by forwards Sadio Mane of Senegal, Brazil’s Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah of Egypt. He has also forged a connection with fans in the city and around the world.
The attacking football played has won plaudits far and wide too, especially in April when the Reds came back from a 3-0 defeat in Barcelona in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final to win the second leg 4-0.
It was also a thrilling night off the pitch as Anfield, Liverpool’s homeground, once again confirmed its status as one of the world’s iconic stadiums, capable of creating that special atmosphere for fans.
It has been some time since Old Trafford did the same.
Liverpool went on to win the final and become European champion for a sixth time.
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RECORD REVENUES REMAIN
At least Manchester has been able to pull in record revenues due to its commercial success. In September, the club announced record revenue of £627.1 million, up from £589.8 million mainly due to an increase in broadcasting revenue.
Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward did predict, however, that this coming year could see a fall due to the club’s continued failure to qualify for the lucrative Champions League that features Europe’s top teams.
This harms the clubs image. There are signs that commercial revenue could be affected.
On Oct 11, it was reported that American automobile giant Chevrolet will not renew its seven-year shirt sponsorship deal worth a reported £450 million when it expires in 2021, with sections of the UK media saying the decision was taken due to the club’s under-performance.
United’s popularity in Asia too is sure to suffer if the current malaise continues for much longer. Numbers are hard to come by but travel around Asia’s cities and there seems to be more Liverpool shirts and fewer Manchester ones on the streets.
Success, exciting stars on the pitch and a positive association with Anfield can help Liverpool become Asia’s favourite English club.
That will not bother the fans back in Manchester too much at the moment. For now, the focus is on being the first team this season to stop Liverpool winning, which is why Sunday’s match will be exciting.
Yet even if it happens, it is likely to be just a temporary satisfaction.
More work lies ahead if Manchester United is to reclaim its number one seat as England’s most celebrated football club.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of 3 books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).