Commentary

Fergie vs. the King

Updated: March 4, 2011, 3:10 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish Getty ImagesSir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish have a managerial rivalry that goes back to the 1980s.

There are few rivalries in sports that get the adrenaline pumping, the lager flowing and the bricks flying through bus windows quite like Liverpool-Manchester United.

Put simply, Mancunians and Liverpudlians are not big on sporting bonhomie. Or, as former United captain Gary Neville once proclaimed: "I can't stand Liverpool, I can't stand Liverpool people, I can't stand anything to do with them."

And yes, that includes the Beatles.

Neville may have finally retired, but there will be vats of bad blood at Anfield on Sunday when United and Liverpool meet in a game that, in addition to settling old scores, will also play a role in deciding each team's EPL fate.

Having coasted through nearly two-thirds of the season without a loss, the Red Devils looked to be running away with the Prem. But two staggering defeats in their past four league games -- including a humbling mess against lowly Wolves -- have turned what appeared to be a triumphant march to their 19th title into a massive test of resolve and endurance.

So precarious is United's perch at the summit that those Carling Cup darlings Arsenal (if you're a Birmingham fan) could sneak within a point if the Gunners win Saturday against Sunderland.

Liverpool, meanwhile, harbors no illusions of silverware, which is not to say it doesn't have grandiose dreams. Until last weekend's thudding-back-to-earth 3-1 embarrassment at then-last place West Ham, the Kop faithful were talking about qualifying for Champions League with a straight face.

[+] EnlargeUnited vs. Liverpool
Bob Thomas/Getty ImagesManchester United's Paul McGrath and Liverpool's Craig Johnston went toe-to-toe when their teams clashed in 1988, ending in a 3-3 draw.

If any proof is needed as to the crushing weight of expectations on these two archenemies, all you have to do is look at the crimson faces of their respective managers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish.

Even before the FA charged SAF with "improper conduct" for his verbal elbow to referee Martin Atkinson's head after United's controversial 2-1 defeat to Chelsea on Tuesday -- "I must say that when I saw who was refereeing [the Chelsea game], I feared the worst," Sir Alex sniffed -- Fergie had the look of a man who had been holding his breath under water for several minutes. His tirade against Atkinson for the dubious, match-deciding penalty at Stamford Bridge was just the start; on Thursday, upon learning he was to be punished for his Sheen-worthy outburst, he refused to speak to United's own TV station as retaliation for the station's airing the interview that could lead to him being banned for up to five games.

Thus the world was deprived of Sir Alex's traditional prematch mind games that so endear him to opposing managers.

"I've known Fergie for a long, long time," King Kenny told the English press earlier this week. "It must be 40 years since I first came across him. It [a psychological ploy] would have to be a good one to catch us out."

The 67-year-old Ferguson and Dalglish -- 60 years old Friday -- both grew up in Glasgow, where people have been known to confuse a kiss with a head-butt. Theirs has been a tense but respectful relationship ever since the two combative Scots first clashed on the field in 1969 when a baby-faced Dalglish, filling in as an emergency center back for Celtic, marked Ferguson, then a bustling, industrious Rangers striker. "My biggest memory is Fergie's elbows; they were a real nuisance," Dalglish recalled at his press briefing Thursday. "But I have to say he never gave me a problem."

That is, until Ferguson became the boss of Dalglish's despised rival. In fact, the first time I fully grasped the level of enmity of a United-Liverpool derby was in 1988. Liverpool was then cruising to its 17th title when United, 11 points back, rolled into Anfield. As memorable as the game itself was -- United's two-goal comeback spoiled the Kop's fun and earned a 3-3 draw -- it was eclipsed by the postmatch managerial fireworks.

Ferguson, in full hair-dryer mode, was ranting to a radio reporter about -- wait for it -- the officiating, claiming that managers of visiting teams leave Anfield "choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth."

As it happened, Dalglish was walking past him during Ferguson's meltdown, carrying his six-week-old daughter. Without breaking stride, he turned to the reporter, and pointing to his daughter, said, "You'll get more sense out of her."

Dalglish can laugh at the incident now, though he still feels the anvil of pressure bearing down on him whenever Fergie comes to town. After getting off to an impressive start in his second stint at the Liverpool helm, going undefeated in six league games after a debut loss at Blackpool, Dalglish has seen the Reds stumble to a 1-1 tie against Wigan and come undone against West Ham. The strain was evident on him during the Hammers debacle as he stalked the touchline, raging at the soccer gods and Jamie Carragher. Dalglish knows a win over United will go a long way toward recovering his team's morale and bolstering its chances to secure a berth in the Europa League next season.

It helps that the game is at the Anfield bearpit, ensuring that United will be up against more than just Dalglish's eleven players. The abuse from the crowd will be loud and relentless, especially those ditties aimed at Wayne Rooney:

He's fat

He's bald

He likes his women old!

Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney

I'm sure the Kop End will make some tweaks to reflect Rooney's latest act of sportsmanship -- the ice pick of an elbow that he crashed into the skull of Wigan's James McCarthy.

And Sir Alex's ludicrous defense of his prodigal striker -- "There was nothing to it" -- only undermined his legitimate complaints about the shoddy refereeing in the Chelsea game. But while he may have been correct in claiming that Chelsea's David Luiz was as deserving of a red card as Nemanja Vidic, that does not excuse the brainless, thuggish antics of his captain and his most valuable defender. With Vidic suspended and Rio Ferdinand still out injured, Ferguson is now forced to field a center-back pairing of the promising but inexperienced Chris Smalling and the rust-ringed veteran Wes Brown, who is making just his third start of the season.

Against a potential Liverpool strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, this is not the matchup Ferguson had in mind. Carroll hasn't kicked a ball in anger since he suffered a thigh injury in December when playing for Newcastle before his $57 million transfer to Liverpool, and Dalglish isn't about to risk his prize asset if he's not fully fit. He also is keeping a parental eye on extracurricular activity, keenly aware of Carroll's fondness for boozing and brawling. As indulgent as Ferguson is with Rooney, do you think he'd ever be caught dead with him at a Boyzone concert?

Yet Dalglish accompanied Carroll to the boy band's recent gig in Liverpool, and he also brought along his daughter Lauren, the same child he was cradling in his arms in 1988 when he said she made more sense than Sir Alex. She may be 22 now, but some things never change.

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."