Liverpool set course to renew rivalry
There's a nostalgic breeze blowing through the transfer window this summer. Liverpool and Manchester United have dominated the early exchanges, and with Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish both targeting a youthful revolution, the two footballing giants of the North West could be on course for a return to the halcyon days of a rivalry that defined a generation.
Liverpool struck first with a reported £16 million deal for 20-year-old Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson - a player Dalglish hailed a "class act on and off the field", and rates as one the most talented young players in the game. Henderson was a wanted man, with United among his many suitors, but Liverpool were fixed on their target and ultimately were prepared to out-bid the competition.
It was the third time in less than six months their director of football, Damien Comolli, had made the kind of statement in the transfer market Dalglish believes will "raise the profile" of a club once the envy of Europe. Andy Carroll's arrival might have been funded with proceeds from the £50 million sale of Fernando Torres, but anytime you spend £35 million on a relatively unproven 22-year-old, you're going to turn heads.
Luis Suarez was a less speculative investment. As part of Uruguay's overachieving team at the 2010 World Cup, the 24-year-old had proved himself on the biggest stage - and came with Champions League experience and a fine scoring record in the Eredivisie with Ajax. The fact he was given Dalglish's iconic No. 7 shirt said it all. Liverpool paid nearly £23 million for a player they were confident could play an integral role in returning the club to former glories.
All three purchases, at a combined cost of over £70 million, were achieved with a ruthlessness vital to Liverpool's evolution. The club can't offer Champions League football next season, but freed of the suffocating debts of the George Gillett and Tom Hicks era, they can at least now put some money on the table to illustrate their ambition.
New owners Fenway Sports Group are said to have a clear long-term strategy for the club, and the arrival of three hugely promising young players is a good indication they're prepared to be patient.
Comolli maintains they're not finished yet. Rumours are rife that Blackpool midfielder Charlie Adam will hold talks at Anfield in the coming days, and Liverpool have also been linked to full-backs Gael Clichy and Luis Enrique. With each bold signing, the club becomes a more attractive proposition to prospective new players, and with Dalglish lending his romantic appeal to the renaissance, Liverpool finally appear to be back on an upward trajectory.
Meanwhile, down the M62 at Manchester United, Dalglish's age-old adversary Ferguson is once again seeking to evolve his team and answer the questions set by Barcelona in a one-sided Champions League final. Shorn of the retired Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin Van der Sar, and with Ryan Giggs now 37, Ferguson has made youth a priority and appears set to oversee a summer of reinvention at Old Trafford.
Blackburn central defender Phil Jones was the first through the door. United paid an estimated £16.5 million fee for the 19-year-old, beating Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool to land the England Under-21 international. When you consider Chris Smalling is 21, and the Da Silva twins Rafael and Fabio are still just 20, United have the makings of a defence to watch over the next decade at Old Trafford.
The man behind them still looks likely to be Atletico Madrid's 20-year-old goalkeeper David de Gea - the highly-rated Spain Under-21 international Ferguson believes has exactly the combination of composure and confidence he was looking for in a successor for Van der Sar. The United manager took six years to find a worthy replacement for Peter Schmeichel and suffered the consequences. He won't be making the same mistake again.
In midfield, Ferguson continues his search for a replacement for Scholes - but United are reported to have already secured a key acquisition in the signing of England international Ashley Young. The 25-year-old offers Ferguson an alternative to the talents of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung - and represents further investment in English talent.
With the Premier League now requiring eight members of a 25-man squad be "homegrown", and FIFA still exploring the possibility of introducing the controversial "six-plus-five" rule in time for the 2012-13 season, United and Liverpool both appear to be making a calculated attempt to up their quotas. It's another reason to believe the two bitter rivals could be stealing a march on their competition - and on course for a return to the great battles that lit up the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s.
It will be 25 years ago this November that Ferguson took over an under-achieving United side with a drinking culture and attempted to overthrow a dynasty. As Liverpool's player-manager, Dalglish had just masterminded a league and cup double, and was riding high with the best club side English football had produced for a decade. Ferguson later revealed his intent had been to "knock them off their f**king perch", but few outside of Old Trafford had believed he could do it at the time.
A quarter of a century later, and with Ferguson fresh from winning United a record 19th league title - the 12th of his remarkable reign - the balance of power has long since shifted. Liverpool have enjoyed sporadic success, notably winning a Champions League in 2005, but they've gone without a league title for 21 years and suffered a fall from grace that's been hard to bear for everyone concerned. Some cite the club's financial naivety; others the departure of Dalglish in 1991 and the mismanagement that followed him.
But with King Kenny back on his throne, and Liverpool making plans for the future, Anfield could yet bear witness to a joyous redemption.
Ferguson knocked them off their perch, but Liverpool could finally be ready to take it back. And what better finale for the two grand old masters of the game than a head-to-head battle for the ages.