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Mar 12, 2009

A nice problem to have

''I'm leaving out great players all the time,'' complained Sir Alex Ferguson last Saturday as he reflected on the embarrassment of riches at his disposal. Tellingly in the current title race this is not a problem often cited by Rafa Benitez, except when injury forces him to name Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres as benchwarmers.

So, if we forced Ferguson to omit more high-calibre players, what would a team look like if, instead of facing one another on Saturday, Liverpool and Manchester United pooled their personnel? And do the results indicate, as is often stated, that there is strength in depth at Old Trafford, but not at Anfield?

This hypothetical process was conducted under the assumption everyone is fit, and with a second 11 selected to further test the clubs' respective resources. Had the sole criterion for selection been their performance against Real Madrid, it could have been a clean sweep for Liverpool; given United's dominance of the season, there is a case for 11 men from Manchester. A combined XI has neither, however.

We'll start off with a shock. Edwin van der Sar may have spent the last few months amassing records, but by virtue of being busier Jose Reina has saved more shots and more points than the Dutchman and so wins this goalkeeping vote.

Despite Reina's selection United's impeccable defending does deserve recognition, and it is only right they contribute the majority of the back four.

Left-back is Liverpool's problem position, so Patrice Evra is a shoo-in. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic represent the outstanding central defensive partnership in the Premier League and have the benefit of complementing one another. The Englishman's anticipation and reading of the game enables him to provide the sleeker sidekick to the more aggressive Serb. There is little logic in disrupting such an effective alliance.

But Jamie Carragher can be accommodated. It may be a slight to the specialists, and it is public knowledge that it is not his favourite role, but Liverpool's vice-captain is an excellent right-back. He is underrated as an attacking force and it means Anfield's answer to Vidic is also available to provide his brand of no-holds-barred defending.

If the right winger is perhaps the simplest selection - a certain Portuguese - the centre of midfield may be the toughest. The commanding performances Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano produced in the Bernabeu mean there is a case for choosing them as a pair; equally, the same could be said for Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher after their displays against Chelsea. Michael Carrick may have had the finest season of any of the candidates, but Gerrard's best surpasses anyone else's.

Any duo involves an element of compromise, but Gerrard can be picked in his preferred position in the centre of midfield with a more defensive accomplice. The tireless Mascherano is ideal, while Giggs is the choice on the left. He may rarely play there now, but Evra's overlapping style means the Welshman could effectively operate as a third central midfielder and permit Gerrard to roam.

Deploying him in midfield renders it easier to select a forward line. Even given the competition for places, Gerrard's usual ally in attack is an automatic pick: Torres' speed, sharpness and potency means he plays.

There is a three-way contest to partner him, with the candidates comprising United's strike force. Wayne Rooney edges out Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez, partly for his greater versatility. Although it is a side selected in a 4-4-2 formation, they could just as easily play 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard operating behind Torres, and flanked by Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

So there are three Liverpudlians and, excluding Giggs on the basis of his birth in Cardiff, no Mancunians. Nevertheless, this side contains a majority - just - for Ferguson and a minority of Benitez's charges. It suggests a marginal advantage for Manchester United.

The second XI, however, does indicate United possess a far greater pool of talent. With only three Liverpool players - Martin Skrtel, Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt - it is dominated by United and includes some men who are only understudies at Old Trafford. There were some close calls - particularly the choice between Rafael da Silva and Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back - but it points to United's genuine strength in depth.

It also helps illustrate why Liverpool, with a relatively small group of high-class performers, are capable of outstanding results but unable to sustain the consistency to win the title, whereas United are better equipped to cope with the absences of their premier players. And if that does not support Ferguson's statement that he is leaving out great players, he is certainly omitting very good ones on a regular basis. Benitez has no such luxury.

The first XI: Jose Reina; Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra; Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Ryan Giggs; Wayne Rooney; Fernando Torres. (Manchester United 6, Liverpool 5)

The second XI: Edwin van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Martin Skrtel, Jonny Evans, John O'Shea; Dirk Kuyt, Michael Carrick, Xabi Alonso, Ji-sung Park; Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov. (Manchester United 8, Liverpool 3)

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