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Friday, February 10, 2012
Can't we all just be friends?

By David Hirshey
Special to ESPN.com

Luis Suárez
After Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra shake hands tomorrow, United and Liverpool will have a tough match on their hands at Old Trafford.

It takes a lot to overshadow a Manchester United-Liverpool loathe-fest, but between Fabio Capello becoming the second Italian skipper in recent months to abandon a sinking ship and Harry Redknapp playing the "I'm a moron" card to bamboozle a jury of his peers, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that two blood-Red rivals are playing Saturday.

And it's not just any game, but one that will go a long way toward defining each side's respective Prem fate this season, as well as determining whether the stiff British Upper Lip will be on display when a Frenchman and a Uruguayan shake hands before kickoff at Old Trafford. Both managers have assured the media that Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez will put aside their semantic differences that led to an eight-game ban for the Liverpool striker -- and that there will be no repeat of the memorable five-finger fiasco when John Terry thrust out his hand toward his onetime Chelsea and England teammate, Wayne Bridge, only to grab a fistful of fresh air.

But even if Evra and Suarez go through the public relations charade of locking digits, what will it achieve? Will the toxic clouds of allegations of racism and homophobia and systemic FA buffoonery suddenly part to a chorus of heavenly cherubs?

When Redknapp is allowed to open bank accounts for his dog while claiming that he ('Arry, not the canine) has the mental capacity of a 5-year-old, and Terry's court dates have been shifted around so they won't interfere with a Euro final (which England will reach around the same time Newt Gingrich puts up his moon base), can the end of days really be that far away?

Between the tweeting, chanting, fighting and whinging, if ever we needed a compelling game of soccer to temporarily distract us from the recent will-to-live-sapping EPL maelstroms, it is now. Saturday's United versus Liverpool "Armagedda," as Piers Morgan might put it, could be the tonic.

The two legendary clubs -- all of 35 miles apart geographically but light-years in terms of relevance -- have been inching in different directions for decades, with United firmly ensconced at the peak of the English pyramid, while the point differential between Liverpool and Everton gets narrower every year. And that's not a compliment to the Toffees.

Dirk Kuyt
Dirk Kuyt scored the goal that sent United out of the FA Cup.

The latest incarnation of Kenny Dalglish has brought some of its 1980s level of political incorrectness with it, as the Reds manager has done more than his share to prolong recent tensions. First he encouraged his players to sport those "What were they thinking?" T-shirts to show their solidarity with Suarez. Then he stubbornly insisted on his martyred star's innocence post-punishment ("he should never have been out in the first place"). While the inner troglodyte persona probably plays well on Merseyside, pandering to this lowest level of common denominator is unlikely to please Dalglish's more tweedy New England paymasters who hope to one day turn a profit on their sizable investment.

Fortunately, we get a second helping of these bitter rivals after their storming FA cup encounter two weeks ago, and while United crashed out -- to go along with its premature exits from the Champions League and Carling Cup -- the stakes Saturday are massive. Neither side can afford anything other than maximum points if they hope to keep pace in their respective quests: The home reds are fighting to hang onto Man City's league-leading coattails while the away reds battle to stay on the Champions League bubble.

And such is the long and loving history between these teams that it is not enough for one to succeed -- the other must fail. Nothing pleases the supporting base more than to contribute to the other's demise.

Suarez might as well have a target on his back that screams "Abuse me; call me names; please excuse me while I dive" just in case the Old Trafford crowd enjoys a good multiple-choice exam. United's resident expert in etiquette, Wayne Rooney, metaphorically laid down the welcome mat earlier in the week with his tweets about how Suarez should have been given a red card for kicking Tottenham's Scott Parker in the stomach only four minutes into his Prem return. To the Uruguayan's credit, however, he did show his remorse by executing an "accidental" eye gouge on Parker moments later.

Even though the recently furloughed striker gave only a hint of his menace during his 24-minute cameo Monday, you can understand why Wazza would be happy for him to miss Saturday's game. Suarez orchestrated United's destruction last March by teeing up all three Dirk Kuyt goals in Liverpool's 3-1 victory at Anfield.

But for all the Uruguayan's guile and technique -- I mean his skills around the box, not his legal defense -- his finishing through 19 games before he went into the FA hoosegow was about as reliable as his sense of racial harmony. For a guy who scored an astonishing 111 goals in 159 games for Ajax, Suarez has rippled the net a whopping five times in the Prem this season, and his absence actually enhanced the Liverpool attack, almost doubling their scoring rate and re-energizing the previously moribund games of Kuyt and Andy Carroll. AVB, are you taking notes?

The indefatigable Kuyt lashed home the winner 10 days ago when the Reds knocked United out of the FA Cup, and the relentlessly hapless Carroll, while still struggling to find the net, has shown signs of life in ways not reflected on the score sheet. What the Big Ponytail does well is use his stout frame to muscle defenders out of his way or to impede a goalkeeper's view, as he did so effectively on Liverpool's first goal in the FA Cup win over United. With David de Gea displaying a crippling fear of heights, the last thing the Spaniard needed blocking his line of vision was the hulking Carroll, who did enough to distract the keeper from the Daniel Agger header that deflected into the goal off de Gea's head.

All this combines to make a possible Suarez return to the starting lineup oddly bittersweet for Liverpool fans. Craig Bellamy has used his buzzing energy to create havoc on the flanks, reminding everybody what a waste Stewart Downing has proved to be, while also feeding off the knock-downs Carroll has nodded into his path. Over the past eight games, they have forged a partnership worthy of Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer, as opposed to the comical Abbott and Costello routine of Carroll and Suarez. It will be interesting to see what tandem King Kenny chooses to trot out at Old Trafford.

Ferguson's options are arguably more limited. Even with Antonio Valencia's return to form, United's width remains suspect, as Ashley Young has proved no more of a threat than his former Aston Villa teammate Downing. The twin metronomes in United's midfield, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, would be considered old by MLS standards. The recent rejuvenation of Chicharito is a welcome relief, and the Scouse blood in Rooney always seems to inspire him when these two sides meet. With a court jester's patchwork in the middle, and Fergie still trying to find the secret sauce to fix his injury-ravaged back line, United is ripe for the taking. Unfortunately, and annoyingly, Sir Alex's teams refuse to be defined by convention, and any squad that surges back from three down away from home against a decent Chelsea side isn't going to be all that afraid of a Liverpool team that is often toothless offensively.

If nothing else, both teams will provide plenty of chest-thumping passion and commitment, resulting in the usual flurry of cards, real and imaginary.

Let's just hope that one of them is not for Evra attempting to pull Suarez's arm out of the socket in the pregame handshake.

3-1 United.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."