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ESPN Soccernet Preview: Liverpool v Man Utd

Four defeats in succession and suddenly Liverpool's title challenge looks almost over. Liverpool fans will cling to the knowledge that in 1963-64, Bill Shankly's side picked up the trophy after losing four of their first nine games, but a win for Manchester United on Sunday afternoon would surely put the final nail in their coffin.

• Kevin Brodie: Rafa is still the man
• Six of the best encounters

One of the most highly anticipated derbies in recent years, Rafael Benitez faces the very real chance of losing his job if Liverpool are humiliated by the Premier League champions, despite a public "vote of confidence" from the club's American owners; while United are keen to avenge their own humiliation from a 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford last season.

Benitez takes charge of his 200th Premier League game, but may have to do without midfield inspiration Steven Gerrard, as the England man's recurring groin problem. United have suffered their own injury problems, with Wayne Rooney struggling with a calf complaint; but look in much better shape as they have lost only one of their last seven Premier League trips to Anfield.

Liverpool player in focus: Javier Mascherano. As a defensive shield for the back four, Mascherano has a vitally important role to play. One of the world's finest midfielders, he has suffered a dip in form of late and has struggled to assert his dominance in the centre of the pitch. Stopping United's attacks will not be easy and Liverpool need the Argentine to be in top condition.

Man Utd player in focus: Antonio Valencia. With comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo always going to follow the Ecuadorian, he is finally beginning to show his potential. Two goals in two games have made the £16 million investment look a good one. His tricks, pace and crossing ability will cause the Liverpool defence problems, and now boasts a goal threat too.

Key battle: Fernando Torres v Nemanja Vidic. Recovering from injury, Torres has the pace and skill to worry any defender in the world. The Spanish striker has eight league goals already this season and, although he won't relish a physical battle, will be up for such a crucial game. Vidic was embarrassed by Torres when Liverpool battered the champions 4-1 at Old Trafford in March, so will be keen to prove himself. The Serbian centre-back was sent off in both home and away fixtures against Liverpool last season, so if he'll have to keep his temperament in check first.

Tactics: Hit by injuries, Liverpool should use Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel on the wings to support Fernando Torres up front on his own. Javier Mascherano will play the holding role with Yossi Benayoun drafted into the centre to try and inspire some creativity in the absence of Steven Gerrard. United should opt for a three-man midfield to try and dominate centrally, with in-form Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs pushed out wide. Both sides will want to dominate the midfield area and, whoever does, will come out on top.

Quotes: Liverpool co-owner George Gillett on Rafa Benitez: "Our family is extraordinarily pleased with him, we believe he is absolutely as good as there is in the business."

Sir Alex Ferguson on the derby: "I am not interested in their league form, I am more pleased with the kind of form we are in. We are consistent and consistent is important."

In the news: Rafa Benitez's future has been called into question over the past week, but co-owner George Gillett has defended his manager. Liverpool fans have chosen to protest over the American ownership of the club and have planned a march to take place before the game organized by the Spirit of Shankly group. Meanwhile, United fans are buying Liverpool beach balls by the case, as they plan to re-enact the incident at Sunderland that cost Rafa dearly.

Liverpool Team News: Steven Gerrard is a major doubt with a groin injury, but Liverpool do expect to have Fernando Torres and Glen Johnson back. Sotiros Kyrgiakos is out after suffering a knee injury, while Alberto Aquilani is still making his painstaking comeback in the reserves.

Man Utd Team News: Wayne Rooney remains a doubt, but veteran Ryan Giggs is poised to return and Patrice Evra has overcome a heel problem. Darren Fletcher (groin) is another doubt while Park Ji-Sung (knee) is set for a couple of weeks on the sidelines.

Probable Liverpool line-up (4-5-1): Reina, Insua, Carragher, Skrtel, Johnson, Mascherano, Lucas, Benayoun, Babel, Kuyt, Torres.

Probable Man Utd line-up (4-5-1): Van der Sar, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Neville, Carrick, Scholes, O'Shea, Valencia, Giggs, Berbatov.

Soccernet prediction: Liverpool's confidence is shot, so the last game they want is against the Premier League leaders and they may suffer. Likely to be beaten in the midfield battle, a draw would represent a great result for Rafa.


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