By Jonathan Birchall
The Manchester derby may take rightful claim of being the season's most significant fixture, but even now, with City stood as champions elect, nothing sets the North West alight like Liverpool vs United.
Roberto Mancini's task of forcing the blue half of Manchester into the annuls of English football history may, in some ways, be impossible. Silverware will no doubt come to the Etihad Stadium and in great volume but not even the most sought-after prizes in the game can replace what is so deep-seated behind the Reds either end of the East Lancs Road.
Why? Ask any United or Liverpool fan what makes them dislike the other so much and no answer will be the same. Only vitriol remains as the common denominator between the two most successful clubs in the country. They simply do not get along - but with that comes the promise of another great spectacle when they meet in Saturday's FA Cup fourth round.
It will be their 17th in this competition alone and history suggests that there will be drama to accompany the bile at Anfield. We've taken a look at five of the fixtures that have served as checkpoints in a truly unique running feud.
||PAISLEY DENIED THE TREBLE
That Liverpool were to be crowned European champions and the best team in the country in 1977 speaks volumes not only of the surprise that the year's FA Cup's final caused but also of this fixture's ability to defy the form books.
The significance of the 2-1 win for United was huge; the post-Busby malaise that had seen the club relegated in 1974 was finally put to bed as Tommy Docherty's men became big time, albeit briefly, once again to secure their first trophy since the 1968 European Cup final.
The tie itself was settled within an erratic five-minute spell that saw Stuart Pearson put the Red Devils in front on the 51st before Jimmy Case levelled it with an unstoppable half-volley past Alex Stepney only a few hundred seconds later.
Docherty's men then went on to win the club's fourth FA Cup in total as Jimmy Greenhoff somewhat fortunately deflected Lou Macari's effort home with his chest as United, having watched Liverpool overtake them as English football's powerhouse, managed to deny Bob Paisley and his side the first ever Premier League, FA and European Cup treble.
Liverpool, despite their dominance in the late 1970s and 80s, never did win that particular race. But more on that later.
||FAGAN'S LIVERPOOL BOUNCE BACK TWICE 13/4/1985
Simply refusing to admit defeat may have become the hallmark of Sir Alex Ferguson's era at Old Trafford but it had long been cultivated in the Anfield boot room by 1985, and in an incredible semi-final only a short walk from the Kop across Stanley Park at Goodison, the European champions delivered a lesson in spirit and perseverance.
Bryan Robson opened the scoring midway through the second half with a deflected effort from Gordon Strachan's corner, before Ronnie Whelan equalised with only three minutes of normal time spare with a magical strike from 25 yards out to take the game into injury time.
Ron Atkinson's men rallied and took the lead again through Frank Stapleton and looked to all the world to be heading to Wembley. However, fortune would, for once, favour the Merseyside outfit as the referee failed to spot the linesman's flag as Kenny Dalglish received the ball in the 119th minute.
With the game allowed to play on, the Scot swung a deep cross onto the head of the otherwise disappointing Ian Rush, who forced an incredible save from Gary Bailey with a header before Paul Walsh knocked it home to send the game to replay. The Red Devils won it at Maine Road and then the final against Everton with a Norman Whiteside goal in extra time. It wouldn't be the last time they'd leave it late.
||CANTONA TOO HOT FOR ANFIELD SPICE BOYS, 11/5/1996
A multitude of sins can be forgiven on a football pitch for one moment of pure inspiration and such was the case for the 1996 FA Cup final, when Eric Cantona, ever the centre of attention, grabbed the himself the headlines and United the double at Wembley
A wholly forgettable 84 minutes was bookended by moments of the ridiculous and the sublime. The former came from Liverpool's 'Spice Boys' - a term that dominated Anfield during the mid 1990s with the Reds' squad seen to be made up largely of good-looking, under-achieving prima donnas. Arriving at the final in garish cream Armani suits selected by goalkeeper David James, Gucci loafers and sunglasses, the squad neared self-parody.
It was Ferguson's side who would be laughing come the end of the game, as with just over five minutes left, having delivered a relatively quiet showing, United's mercurial No.7 received the ball at stomach height outside the area from James' punch following a corner and swung an effort on the half volley through the crowded area and beyond the young 'keeper.
Having returned earlier in the season from a seven-month suspension for his infamous karate kick at Crystal Palace to guide the Old Trafford club to the title, it seemed only inevitable that it would be remembered as Cantona's final.
||OLE WINS IT LATE (SURPRISE SURPRISE), 24/1/1999
With United having stopped Liverpool from becoming the first English side to secure the treble back in 1977, it was somewhat fitting that they'd have to overcome their nemeses from Merseyside to achieve the feat. They were to do so in a fashion that would come to define the season; and the Ferguson era as a whole.
Typically United, the home side made life difficult for themselves from only the third minute, going a goal down to a Michael Owen header from Veggard Heggem's cross. With Ferguson's side third in the title race behind Aston Villa and Chelsea and still looking to recover from a winter slumber that had seen them win only four of previous 10 Premier League games, the hosts simply needed to recover.
They did, and never looked back. After 88 minutes of hammering the Liverpool box, Dwight Yorke tapped into an empty after having been played in by his partner in telepathy Andy Cole, before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, in injury time of course, perfectly timed his strike through the legs of a young Jamie Carragher to send his side closer to Wembley.
In his match report at the time, David Anderson of the Press Association wrote: "In years to come they will still talk about this match. The match where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winner in stoppage time to complete one of the most remarkable Manchester United comebacks ever."
Well they say hindsight is a wonderful thing.
||LIVERPOOL FINALLY BREAK THEIR HOODOO, 18/2/2006
85 years of FA Cup hurt for the Kop finally came to an end against their greatest rivals in 2006 as Rafa Benitez's Liverpool crept into the FA Cup quarter-finals, but it was a day to be forgotten for both clubs.
Peter Crouch netted a header from Steve Finnan's 19th minute cross as Liverpool proved far better of the two teams, but the leg break and dislocated ankle suffered by United midfielder Alan Smith after he blocked John-Arne Riise's free-kick will forever be the image that resonates when the game is remembered.
The aftermath to the injury was to provide a troubling reminder of the venom that runs between a vast minority of those associated to the two clubs, as Smith's ambulance was attacked outside the ground by supposed Reds fans as it made its way to hospital with his career on the line.
The two paramedics travelling with the former Leeds man, said to be Liverpool supporters themselves, were disgusted by the incident and alongside both clubs and their respective supporters associations, condemned their actions, acknowledging that their hatred transcended a bitter but well-intentioned feud.
That such incidents, as with the vile chanting from both sets of fans on the Hillsborough and Munich Air disasters, stem from a tiny, ugly minority is a blessing, and their actions mustn't be allowed to strain mutual respect between the North West's largest clubs.
Dalglish revealed that Ferguson had said "welcome back" when the pair shook hands at Old Trafford just over 12 months ago in another FA Cup clash. Whether such pleasantries remain at Anfield on Saturday, like the match itself remains unknown. The history books await all over again.
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