Liverpool vs. Man Utd: 50-50 Challenge
There's no such thing as a friendly when Liverpool face Manchester United. Two giants of English football square off on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN.com) in the final of the International Champions Cup in Miami, with Louis van Gaal set for his first taste of action against a bitter rival.
David Usher (Liverpool) and Musa Okwonga (Manchester United) look ahead to the game:
So this isn't much of a friendly, is it?
David Usher: Agreed. It's difficult to think of any situation in which Liverpool versus Manchester United would ever be "friendly." Every meeting between these two sides means something, although this one means less than usual. The losing manager and players will dismiss it as little more than a fitness exercise, while the winners will also downplay the significance of the game. Privately, though, they will take great pleasure in putting one over on the old enemy. The fans back home probably won't lose too much sleep over a loss, but for those inside the stadium, bragging rights are at stake.
There's added incentive for United's players, as they are playing to impress a new manager and are coming off a season in which they finished below Liverpool. They're not used to that; it's happened only twice in the Premier League era, so last season will have been a shock to the system at Old Trafford, not least as they ended up seventh.
The game in Miami doesn't mean anything in terms of the coming season, but both sides will want to win simply because it's Liverpool versus Manchester United.
Musa Okwonga: It's never that friendly when these teams meet. Liverpool defeated United twice last season in the Premier League and probably should have won the title, so they may be somewhat dismayed at signs that their rival is returning to health. This match will be a Community Shield of sorts: an early-season skirmish whose result will matter to these teams more than any normal friendly, though neither will admit it, win or lose.
How would you assess your team's preseason form so far?
DU: Surprisingly good, all things considered. It's been difficult for Brendan Rodgers, as it's been a disjointed preseason due to one thing and another. The World Cup players have only recently returned to action, and of the new signings, only Rickie Lambert and Emre Can have had any kind of meaningful minutes. Injuries to Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic have been untimely, to say the least; Dejan Lovren couldn't get a visa in time to take part in this tour; and Daniel Agger, Fabio Borini, Daniel Sturridge and Jon Flanagan have all missed games, too.
Liverpool have used an awful lot of players, but the encouraging thing for Rodgers is that the performances and results have mostly been good. The players you would expect to look impressive have been, and there has been the added bonus that some of the players on the fringes -- Suso, Can, Sebastian Coates, Conor Coady and Jordon Ibe, for example -- have done well and perhaps given the manager something to think about.
MO: It has been very encouraging. The players are performing with a freedom and fluidity of movement that they never displayed under David Moyes. This is due to Louis van Gaal's man management and tactics. His introduction of a 3-5-2 system has allowed everyone to play to his strengths or adapt swiftly to roles that he might not previously have imagined. Ander Herrera has fitted seamlessly into the team. Some might say that, given his team's previous midfield options, that was the simplest of tasks, but Herrera's contribution has already been both extensive and exciting.
The team has scored 13 times; remarkably, four of those have come from the boots of Ashley Young, who is slowly being reinvented as a left wing-back. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The sense with Van Gaal is that he is genuinely keen to give every player a chance, as was seen when he gave Tom Cleverley the captain's armband. That sense of a true meritocracy -- not always so apparent under his predecessor -- has allowed fringe and main players alike to thrive on this tour. And perhaps most importantly of all, the chemistry in attack between Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata has been fantastic. These two, whether accompanied by Robin van Persie or Danny Welbeck, look set to score plenty of goals this season.
Do you expect to be battling each other for the title/top four this time around?
DU: I'm not sure. I certainly expect Liverpool to be challenging again, but there's still an uncertainty about United simply because you never know how a team is going to perform under a new manager. As things stand, United's squad is not that much different to the one that finished seventh last season. Of course that seventh-place squad finished as champion the season before, so where United finish hinges mostly on whether Van Gaal is more Sir Alex Ferguson or David Moyes.
Van Gaal's impressive CV suggests he's much closer to Ferguson than he is the trophyless Moyes (the Community Shield doesn't count; sorry, Davie), and the absence of European football should help United, just as it did Liverpool last season. United will definitely be better than last season; how much better remains to be seen.
There's uncertainty about Liverpool too, having lost Luis Suarez, and logic would suggest that a probable drop-off at Merseyside coupled with a significant improvement in Manchester should see both Liverpool and United fighting it out on a much more level playing field than last season. But since when has logic ever applied to football?
MO: I think the front-runners for this season's title will be Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, in that order. Manchester City have the best squad, while Arsenal and Chelsea have strengthened considerably this summer. Chelsea will probably have slightly more hunger than Manchester City, given how they capitulated at the end of last season, so they are my favourite.
Very good though Daniel Sturridge is, I think that Liverpool's loss of one of the world's top five strikers will hurt them, as will the additional burden of Champions League football. At present, Manchester United are probably a season and two signings away from mounting a sustained title challenge.
What have you made of your opponent's transfer business so far?
DU: United have been linked with just about every big name in Europe and have failed to sign any of them thus far. There's still time, but the lack of Champions League football makes it difficult for them to land the really big fish. Herrera strengthens a weak area of their side, and although the fee paid was ridiculous, Luke Shaw looks like a great prospect who should nail down the left-back spot at Old Trafford for the next decade or more. I'd suggest they need more, although Liverpool showed last season that with a top coach and a light fixture load you can get by with a smaller squad.
MO: Liverpool have bought very well, I think. The additions of Lallana, Lambert and Dejan Lovren from Southampton will give their attack and defence both depth and balance, while Markovic could prove every bit as decisive as Philippe Coutinho. Suarez is irreplaceable, which means that to win this season Liverpool must rely even more on cohesive team play than they did last season.
That's reflected in their signings so far. Can will be a useful companion or deputy for Jordan Henderson, whose industry is vital to the success of Liverpool's system. All in all, it has been a good summer for Rodgers, and that is supposedly with two full-backs still to come.
What do you hope to learn from this match?
DU: With both sides having played on Saturday, I would expect to see a lot of squad rotation and substitutions. This won't be a true reflection of the strength of both teams, but it should still be competitive and entertaining as it's a good opportunity for players to stake a claim for a place on opening day.
I'm looking forward to seeing whether Raheem Sterling can maintain the sensational form he's shown so far on this tour, but this game is a great chance for the likes of Can, Henderson, Allen, Ibe and Suso to build on the positive displays they've shown too. In the absence of Sturridge, I would like to see Lambert perform well and find the net. Preseason goals may not count as an official statistic, but it's important for Lambert to get off the mark before the season starts for real, as these things can quickly become an issue. Just ask Peter Crouch.
MO: It's difficult to learn anything from a friendly, even a game as unfriendly as this one, but what we may see is how much of Van Gaal's winning mentality his team has adopted. When coaching the Netherlands, he led them to a ruthless 3-0 dismantling of Brazil in a game he had contemptuously dismissed beforehand as a dead rubber. Whatever he says to the cameras, Van Gaal will badly want to win this match, to set the psychological pace for the coming season.