Man Utd vs. Liverpool is close to a classic rivalry, but lacks major drama
Most major footballing nations have one fixture that is unquestionably the biggest in the country: whether El Clasico (Barcelona vs. Real Madrid) in Spain, the Superclasico (Boca Juniors vs. River Plate) in Argentina, Der Klassiker (Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund) in Germany, Le Classique (Paris Saint-Germain vs. Marseille) in France or O Classico (Benfica vs. FC Porto) in Portugal, the theme is familiar and the implication clear.
English football is different. It lacks an equivalent contest, although the biggest game is usually considered this weekend's fixture: Manchester United vs. Liverpool. It's clearly England's rivalry in a historic sense, but it's peculiarly lacking in major showdowns over the years.
This is a rivalry rooted, at least initially, in politics rather than football. The hatred between the two great northwest cities famously originates from the construction of the Manchester ship canal, in the late 19th century. The canal was an enormous project, at the time the largest of its type anywhere in the world, and meant Manchester became a significant port city despite being 40 miles inland. There was significant Liverpool opposition from the outset, which initially delayed the bill approving the canal from passing through parliament, because the consequences were clear: trade would bypass Liverpool, and the city would suffer financially.
The canal was officially opened in January 1894, so it was somewhat fitting that the first football match between the sides took place just three months later, in April at Blackburn's Ewood Park. Liverpool defeated Newton Heath -- United's former name -- 2-0, and now there was a football rivalry, in addition to a political rivalry.
One-hundred-twenty years later, animosities between the cities remain, and these are now indisputably the two most successful clubs in English football. The moment Manchester United surpassed Liverpool's 18 league titles in 2011 (they reached 20 two years later) was a genuinely significant moment, the changing of the guard. Liverpool supporters argue their five European Cups (to United's three) ensures they remain most successful, but whatever weight you award to various trophies, these are the big two.
Yet rarely have Liverpool and Manchester United been the major two clubs at any particular period. Despite winning 38 league titles between them, only five times have they finished first and second: 1946-47, 1963-64, 1979-80, 1987-88 and 2008-09. For comparison, Real Madrid and Barcelona have been winners and runners-up eight times in the last decade alone.
Even in those five years, Liverpool and Manchester United weren't always the two main title rivals. In 1947, for example, Liverpool's final game was a victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, who would have secured the title themselves with a win. Liverpool subsequently needed to wait until a postponed Stoke City game before celebrating; the Potters lost to Sheffield United, and Liverpool were champions. Manchester United were runners-up, but Liverpool had been more concerned by two other sides.
In 1988, meanwhile, Liverpool triumphed by such a large distance that Manchester United's second-place finish was barely relevant. It was closer in 1980 and 2009, although their final meetings weren't exactly title deciders: the team that lost the game ended up winning the league.
Only the mid-'60s saw these two dominant at one moment. In the four years from 1963-67, the title alternated between Liverpool and Manchester United. Even then, this spell started with Liverpool succeeding Everton as champions, and the spell ended as United lost their title to Manchester City. City rivalries, in addition to the United-Liverpool rivalry, have always been prominent. Interestingly, the last player to transfer directly between the clubs, Phil Chisnall, made the switch from United to Anfield shortly before the first title in this sequence.
Furthermore, there have been just two FA Cup finals between England's two greatest clubs, United triumphing at Wembley in both 1977 and 1996. They have never clashed in European competition, either. During the "big four" period of 2004-10, every combination of those four sides (these two, plus Arsenal and Chelsea) faced one another in the Champions League. Somehow, Manchester United and Liverpool never crossed paths.
In the Premier League era, there have only been two contests with genuine title significance. In April 1997 there was a crucial match at Anfield, which would have seen Liverpool go top, one point clear of United (albeit having played one game more) with a victory. Liverpool lost, and fell away badly.
Then there was the 2008-09 game at Old Trafford, a 4-1 Liverpool win. Its importance has been overstated in hindsight: Liverpool moved four points behind United, having played one game more. There's no doubt United wobbled, losing the next match at Fulham, then needing Federico Macheda to complete a remarkable turnaround against Aston Villa, but Liverpool were never favourites.
Since the formation of the Premier League, United have enjoyed more important rivalries -- in a pure footballing sense -- with Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Both United and Liverpool have dropped out of the Champions League places in recent years, but again, at different times: United's worst Premier League finish was last season, the year of Liverpool's best Premier League title charge.
The animosity between the clubs, and the supporters, is gigantic. In fact, it's been particularly noteworthy over the past couple of years, with managers of both clubs calling for an end to Hillsborough and Munich-related chants, then the fallout from Luis Suarez's conviction for racially abusing Patrice Evra in 2011. In particular, the atmosphere at Old Trafford during their meeting in 2012, remembered as the game when Suarez didn't shake Evra's hand, was incredibly poisonous. There is no doubt these sides, for various reasons, hate one another.
Yet in footballing terms, there's something lacking. There's been nothing like the incredible Liverpool vs. Arsenal showdown at Anfield in 1989, no final day dramas like United faced against Blackburn in 1995 or Manchester City in 2012, no running battles like United enjoyed with Arsenal over the turn of the century.
Maybe this is precisely why the rivalry remains so fierce: the clubs have tasted success at completely different periods, making one side arrogant and the other jealous, ensuring that the matches between the two are purely about bragging rights, rather than major honours.
In one sense, this rivalry has everything: geography, politics, the fight to be England's most successful club and recent animosity. On the other, it's lacking the most important factor: genuinely decisive games, and key moments in the context of major trophies. Manchester United vs. Liverpool might be England's biggest game, but it's not quite The Classic.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.