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Apr 2, 2009

Title rivals in role reversal

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but that does not explain why Liverpool have started to act like Manchester United and the defending champions have appeared to copy their closest challengers in the last three weeks.

It is likely that neither would take that as a compliment. As the recent public exchanges between Rafa Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson show, praise rarely flows both ways along the M62 and the East Lancs road. Nevertheless, an element of role reversal appears to have reopened the title race.

If the perception is of Manchester United as the more adventurous side with Liverpool deploying a more defence-orientated game-plan, Benitez's men are now the Premier League's leading scorers. While it is only a matter of weeks since Ferguson insisted his team invariably possess the best goal difference, after a 13-goal swing in the same of eight days, Liverpool now do.

Moreover, the manner of their victory against Aston Villa was decidedly United-esque. The visitors were subject to a bombardment in the opening minutes and Liverpool boasted a three-goal lead by the interval. Yet, until recently, winning a game by half-time had appeared an alien notion for Liverpool. The season ticket-holders at Anfield are far more acquainted with tense finales than their counterparts at Old Trafford, who can be accustomed to seeing their side cruise to victory. However this came a day after United made an uncharacteristically sloppy start against Fulham before rallying, Liverpool-style, in the second period.

Meanwhile, Benitez has long been pigeonholed as the high priest of rotation while Ferguson has appeared surer of his preferred team. Now, however, the Spaniard is certain not just of his strongest side, but also of his favoured deputies. The same 11 faced both Real Madrid and Villa; but for injuries, they would have taken the field at Old Trafford, too. Where his thinking is clear, the Scot's is harder to determine. Having rotated successfully for much of the season, quixotic choices have backfired in the last two league games.

It irritates Benitez that his critics are more vocal and vitriolic even while others have adopted similar policies. Ferguson's record may shield him from public condemnation, but recent choices can be queried. Hindsight makes it easier to condemn, but marginal calls - such as Carlos Tevez instead of Dimitar Berbatov against Liverpool - have not been justified. Stranger selections included the choice of Anderson in the same fixture, picking Paul Scholes at Craven Cottage and leaving Wayne Rooney to fester on the substitutes' bench for the first half at Fulham. It has not mattered for much of the campaign but now Ferguson, like Benitez, could benefit from identifying his first 11.

Ferguson has long prided himself on United's ability to peak in March and April season after season. Now that is in question. Until recently, many of his charges appeared in a rich vein of form. Such claims are not made of Nemanja Vidic, after his harrowing reunion with Liverpool, or Patrice Evra now. Michael Carrick may be suffering from fatigue, Edwin van der Sar has become accustomed to conceding and Tevez and Berbatov, the possible strike pairing on Sunday, have been uninspired since the Argentine's demolition of Fulham in the FA Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo is expected to be the match-winner, not the sulking sideshow.

The comparison with his Liverpool counterparts is stark. Albeit in an injury-ravaged campaign, Fernando Torres has performed best in his last three fixtures, while Steven Gerrard is in superlative form. Albert Riera's most recent appearance may have also been his finest in a Liverpool shirt while Javier Mascherano, after an undistinguished campaign, has excelled in recent weeks. Fabio Aurelio has been increasingly assured at left-back, even as his deputy, Andrea Dossena, has scored against both Real Madrid and Manchester United. The Italian's unexpected feats reveal a resemblance in the achievements of John O'Shea, another fringe player and one who delivered a winner at Anfield at a similar stage two seasons ago. Paradoxically, however, Benitez has long insisted that rotation keeps his players fresher for the business end of the season.

By a quirk of the fixture list, there is further scope for comparison this weekend when the major challengers swap opponents. United must aim to emulate Liverpool in disposing of Aston Villa at home; Benitez's charges must equip themselves better than Ferguson's did on a trip to Craven Cottage.

As both appear to have borrowed from their fiercest rivals, that has benefited Liverpool thus far. Aping Manchester United is one way of catching them. Yet the men from Manchester have long been embarked upon a quest to copy Liverpool.

By his own admission, Ferguson spent two decades trying to knock them off a certain perch; United have replaced them as the dominant side in English football, but, historically, they are not the most successful just yet. They still languish one title behind Liverpool's tally of 18. Maintain their current lead at the summit of the Premier League and Manchester United will have another thing in common with Liverpool. If they don't, it may be because Liverpool have copied United all too well.

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