BRENDAN RODGERS will send his Liverpool side out at Old Trafford tomorrow with the message: “You’re as good as any team in this league.”
The Reds maybe 21 points adrift of Manchester United but the manager insists there is no reason for them to fear the showdown with the Premier League leaders.
Rodgers believes Liverpool have already proved this season that they have a starting XI who can compete with the best in the top flight.
Matching United over the course of a season is a different matter and the Northern Irishman admits that remains a long-term objective as he continues his rebuilding job.
However, with confidence high after a recent upturn in form, Rodgers is bullish about the eighth-placed Reds’ chances of securing a first victory at Old Trafford in five attempts.
“We’re in a really good moment having won seven out of our last nine games,” he said.
“What I’m starting to see now is the courage to play and that is important.
“It’s no coincidence that we’ve had that run at a time when we’ve stopped playing Europa League games and only had one game a week.
“When I first came here I said in order for us to succeed we needed to build a competitive squad. For us to compete the squad has to be stronger. What gives you consistency is the depth of your squad and that’s something we need to try to improve going forward.
“If you look at one-off games, we were better than Manchester United at Anfield, even with 10 men. We should have beaten Man City, and we drew at Chelsea.
“We are as good as any team in the league. But the difference between us and United is consistency and that bit of depth, not quality.
“Sunday is a yardstick for us but ultimately it’s not just about what happens this weekend.
“It’s over the course of a season you need to judge it, but that doesn’t take away the magnitude of the game. This is a chance to show how we can perform.”
True to form United boss Alex Ferguson has tried to turn up the heat on tomorrow’s referee Howard Webb.
Asked about Luis Suarez’s handball in last weekend’s FA Cup tie at Mansfield, Ferguson said: “The boy is laden with controversy. I don’t know if he enjoys that or not. I hope we don’t suffer some of the decisions which have gone his way.”
Rodgers responded that he’s merely hoping for better fortune than when the sides met at Anfield back in September when a controversial red card for Jonjo Shelvey and a soft late penalty allowed United to clinch a 2-1 win.
“We hope we don’t have the decisions go against us that went for United at Anfield,” he said.
“I hope they don’t get the decisions that can influence the result. But we can’t go too much into it or I will get another piece of paper through like I got earlier on in the season.
“I believe Howard Webb is a very good referee, well established in the Premier League and who refereed a World Cup final. I’m very confident the game will be decided on quality and not a referee’s decision.”
United may boast a seven-point lead at the top, but they have looked vulnerable defensively this season – conceding 28 goals in 21 games.
Their abundance of firepower has repeatedly got them out of trouble with Robin van Persie having bagged 16 league goals. They have won eight and drawn one of their last nine league games, scoring 25 times in the process.
Rodgers admits it’s a tactical balancing act as Liverpool look to exploit United’s weaknesses but avoid leaving themselves exposed at the back. However, he insists his side will be bold.
“We are growing as an attacking force and showing our confidence with the ball,” said Rodgers.
“United will probably be disappointed with the number of goals they have conceded at home. With ourselves creating a lot of opportunities in games we’re very hopeful we can go and take those opportunities, but we know it’s going to be a really difficult game.
“We can go there on a fantastic pitch with big spaces to play. There’s no doubt that with the nature of our possession game, teams don’t sit back against us, they get pushed back.
“I don’t think they are the counter-attacking team they were a few years ago with Ronaldo and other bombing on from wide areas but they have experience.
“If they start with (Ashley) Young on one side, (Antonio) Valenica on the other, (Shinji) Kagawa in behind Van Persie then they have that possibility to break. Then you need that tactical discipline behind the ball.
“That’s the risk when you play that possession game. One or two times if you don’t close up quickly enough then you can be open.
“But I’d rather take that risk, than suffer, sit behind the ball, wait and wait and then chase the game.”
Rodgers’ confidence is boosted by the fact that skipper Steven Gerrard has hit such a rich vein of form ahead of tomorrow’s game.
The 32-year-old midfielder, who was rested for last week’s FA Cup tie, has played every minute of every Premier League game so far this season – providing four league goals and eight assists.
Tomorrow will be the 30th time he has faced United and he will surpass the number of league appearances he made in either 2010/11 or 2011/12 when he was hampered by career-threatening groin and ankle injuries.
“I've got to say, his quality has never been in question,” said Rodgers.
“People obviously judge him on his goals, and maybe he has not scored as much as he has in the past, but the role and responsibility he has in this young team now is slightly different.
“What I've had from him is incredible leadership. Everyone judges him by what he does on the field, which is world class, but this is a guy who is world class off the field as well.
“He’s a wonderful human being, and it's a real pleasure to work with someone like that. As each day goes on he's growing in his confidence and his play. He's been 10 out of 10.”
Rodgers’ first trip to Old Trafford as Liverpool boss is an occasion he is relishing.
“United are fighting at the top of the league but we’re all really looking forward to it,” he added.
“It’s two of the biggest clubs in the world. Both clubs are institutions in their own right.
“People will knock Liverpool at the moment because of the standards that were achieved here in the 1970s and 1980s, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the biggest clubs in the world, and a club many players want to play for.
“Of course Manchester United have been very dominant over a number of years, but this is a football club that also had dominance for many years.
“What you are always fighting for, every day, is to get back to that level.
“It’s a long, hard journey but it has to start somewhere, and what I’ve seen in this first period that I’ve been here is that going forward we can achieve great things.
“We’re all up for the challenge. The biggest thing I have got from my time here so far is hope. We’ll go into Sunday’s game with the courage and the belief we can win.”
Jose Enrique remains sidelined by a hamstring injury but Rodgers has no other injury concerns.