The petulance of Sir Alex Ferguson and his players could backfire spectacularly against revitalised Liverpool
The good news for Manchester United is that Nani is still talking. Sir Alex Ferguson may be miffed that MUTV did not edit his words carefully enough and that every other branch of the media interpreted his comments after the Chelsea defeat as pathetic whingeing from a manager who got lucky with a lenient referee at Wigan three days previously, but at least United's Portuguese winger knows how to use the club's website to project a positive image.
"Everything I do has the potential to be very important," Nani said, possibly stressing his own role rather more than might be considered absolutely necessary. "Some people are saying I'm one of the most important players in the team, somebody who can provide a bit of magic, but I still think I can improve certain aspects of my game. I feel great I've been able to help my team a lot but that won't mean anything if we're not successful. I am really happy but it's what I do from now until the end of the season that counts. We're in a good position in the league and we'll do our best to win the Champions League and FA Cup."
Perhaps these are the mind games Kenny Dalglish was anticipating coming out of United before he realised the manager had effectively censored himself to avoid digging an even deeper hole. Ferguson would have been well advised to let Mike Phelan do all his talking over the past week for, though his assistant was comically disingenuous in suggesting at Wigan that the referee's decision could never be disputed, you do not get into trouble for that and neither do you almost single-handedly wreck the remains of the Respect campaign.
While there is no doubt Ferguson had a point in arguing that David Luiz should have been sent off at Stamford Bridge, there is no doubt either that, had Mark Clattenburg done what most people wanted him to do and allowed the FA to review the Wayne Rooney incident, the striker would have been under suspension for some of United's biggest games of the season. If a manager with a quarter of a century of top-level experience under his belt still cannot take the rough with the smooth, he has no business signing up to the Respect scheme in the first place. And if the senior managerial figure in England cannot trust himself to be reasonable in the immediate aftermath of a defeat – Ferguson crossed a boundary when he questioned the fairness of the referee and said he feared the worst with Martin Atkinson's appointment – he would be better off delegating the task to a deputy who can.
The picture of even the saintly Ryan Giggs waving a finger in Atkinson's face at Chelsea completed a dismal week for United, even if Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick have signed new contracts. Giggs in his calmer, more rational mode would never have wished to celebrate his 20 years as a United player in that way and the downside of what Ben Foster described in these pages last week as a win-at-all-costs culture at the club appears to be an almost childish petulance when these experienced, successful and enormously well remunerated professionals do not get their own way.
So while a month or so ago United were looking forward to making the short trip to Anfield as the acknowledged masters of English football, on course for that especially significant 19th title despite rarely having to perform at their best to beat what was put in front of them, suddenly they are recast as the big babies of English football, travelling to ancient rivals who have just as recently rediscovered something of their old equilibrium.
Liverpool were thought to have all the problems this season, yet now United are the ones with a captain suspended, a striker struggling to control his temper and a manager who by talking himself into trouble has betrayed his anxieties about whether his team can hold on to an increasingly fragile lead at the top of the table. And that is not to mention Rio Ferdinand's absence through injury or Chris Smalling's hitherto unsuspected propensity for making headlines.
To retain a sense of perspective, Liverpool are perhaps not in the greatest shape to inflict the second hammer blow in a week to United's title hopes, though they are in exactly the same position as Chelsea – out of the race themselves, yet with the strongest desire to stop United walking all over them.
Without question, Europa League or not, this is Liverpool's biggest game of the rest of the season. Roy Hodgson may have tried to pretend otherwise but Dalglish is not the man for that. Intriguingly, just as Ferguson has been proving that a lifetime in the game does not necessarily breed diplomacy, the new/old Liverpool manager has reinvented himself as a warm and friendly individual with a happy-go-lucky outlook on work and life.
Dalglish never used to be like that. His friends on the inside always said he was just such a warm and friendly individual but from the outside he was hard work. He would normally examine every question as if it were a hand grenade, with a view to removing the pin and lobbing it back. Relaxed he was not, even in his later incarnations at Blackburn and Newcastle, and there was frequent speculation about how he communicated with his players whenhe appeared to find communicating with the outside world so stressful and difficult.
The new version of Dalglish is not anything of the sort. He wears the mantle of Liverpool manager easily and naturally, as he has every right to do, and is more likely to beam with pleasure at being restored to the job than bristle at impertinent questions. The job ought to be a pleasure, after all, even if that can be temporarily forgotten at the other end of the East Lancs Road.
That Dalglish mellows better than Ferguson may not have any direct bearing on today's game, though it should warn United that Liverpool are a different proposition now from what they were in the FA Cup in January, when Dalglish lost his first game at Old Trafford with Hodgson's team. United were still unbeaten in the league at that point, Liverpool in some disarray. Nothing is quite so cut and dried any longer. Today's game, like the rest of the season, is now tough to call.