The famous Koppites of Anfield face a mighty quandary on Sunday: at what point does it become acceptable, or even preferable, to disregard passionate blood-bred loyalties and support their beloved Liverpool’s opposition? Are the stakes ever high enough to commit the most unnatural and profane blasphemy in all of football fandom? This weekend, they very probably are.
The horror scenario of gift-wrapping an English league record 19th championship to Manchester United has suddenly and sickeningly emerged as a dangerous possibility for Rafa Benitez’s under-performing team; a win against Chelsea (or even a draw) will send all the momentum, and most likely the title, back to Old Trafford. Can you imagine Gary Neville lifting a Premier League trophy that has been signed, sealed and delivered by his Scouse neighbours? It’s the stuff his dreams are made of. United’s relentless pursuit of a 4th consecutive triumph will either fly or die with the fortunes of Chelsea’s Anfield visit, and you can be certain that Carragher, Gerrard et al will be acutely conscious of that fact. They are professionals, and we should fully expect a level of effort and production to reflect it: let’s just say that any poor performances or uninterested end-of-season lethargy will stir the Mancunian conspiracists.
Liverpool’s hopes for a Champions League spot have evaporated, and their best player, Fernando Torres, is recuperating in Spain as he desperately strives for World Cup fitness: in short, why and how might they want to win this game? Chelsea are formidable adversaries anyway, and the prospect of Liverpool rolling over into careless submission is distinctly feasible. Benitez is already preparing his adios, but granting United such a monumental favour might mean that he is chased out of town even quicker than he can shift his questionable tactical mind to Juventus- a Liverpool win pretty much makes no sense for anyone involved with the club.
Of course, the United-Liverpool rivalry is one of the most intense enmities in sport, and needs no introduction here. Every Liverpool fan would rather see Chelsea hoist the Prem crown before United, especially when the two most decorated teams in English football are tied, neck-and-neck, on 18 championships each. It was back in 1994 that Liverpool fans flaunted an incendiary (and subsequently regrettable) banner on Anfield’s terraces: ‘Au Revoir Cantona And United… Come Back When You’ve Won 18!’ United did wrap up that equalizing title in 2009, and are now on the hunt to supersede their chief foe at the statistical pinnacle of domestic football. Could Liverpool’s players really be willing to sacrifice their own pride in order to salvage some glimpse of consolation from a glib and dire season? Chelsea are good enough to beat this side regardless, and must be favourites even playing away from home: Drogba is an irresistible goal-scoring presence, a colossus who hardly needs assistance from indolent defenders to wreak havoc in the field’s final third.
So, that the Kop will be cheering for the Blues on Sunday seems a near-inevitability. Admittedly, on-pitch martyrdom for the anti-United cause might be less likely, but don’t think it couldn’t happen, either: at the very least, Benitez’s deployment of a severely weakened team should not be a shock. And, perhaps for only one day (ever), the red half of Manchester will spend its Sunday praying for the red half of Merseyside- bizarre twists of fate are nothing new in the Premier League, but this is somethin’ else.