Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez’s tussle at the top of the Premier League goal-scoring charts continues at Old Trafford on Sunday as leaders Manchester United take on Liverpool in one of the season’s most keenly-anticipated fixtures.
Neither player can stop scoring but while the superlatives have rained down on 16-goal Dutchman Van Persie, Suarez’s 15 have more often than not been accompanied with pantomime-villain antics that polarize opinion on the Uruguayan.
Last weekend proved a typical scenario as the FA Cup briefly took centre stage after a barrage of holiday Premier League action which left United seven points clear of title rivals Manchester City, who face Arsenal on Sunday.
Van Persie’s last-gasp equalizer against West Ham United had purists salivating but 24 hours later Suarez’s integrity was called into question after he got away with a blatant handball to score his side’s second goal against minor-league Mansfield.
While van Persie has proved to be worth every penny of the 24 million pounds ($38.49 million) United paid Arsenal for his services, Suarez’s contribution to a Liverpool side finally flourishing under Brendan Rodgers after a terrible start is perhaps even more impressive.
He has worked tirelessly as a lone striker for most of the campaign and while his antics and reputation for diving mean the snipers will always be aiming for him, he is establishing himself as the latest idol on Liverpool’s famous Kop.
At least the 160th league clash between the fierce north west rivals looks like being spared the controversial build-up which has marred their most recent meetings.
The focus before and during United’s 2-1 victory at Liverpool in September was on concerns about crowd behavior in the wake of the publication of a report into the Hillsborough disaster that claimed 96 Liverpool fans and spawned several sickening songs from United fans.
Last February at Old Trafford the match was overshadowed by the continuing racism row between the clubs following Suarez’s eight-match ban for calling United’s Patrice Evra “negro” — a situation inflamed by Suarez’s refusal to shake hands with the Frenchman before kickoff.
United manager Alex Ferguson labelled Suarez “a disgrace” at the time but on Sunday he will be more concerned with making sure his leaky defence keeps the south American quiet.
Suarez, who has admirably led the Liverpool attack alone this season now has Daniel Sturridge for company after he joined from Chelsea.
Both scored against Mansfield although how to pair them successfully could pose a challenge to Rodgers who has hinted that Suarez may be moved to a wider position.
“When he played at Ajax he played in behind as a number 10, in between the lines, and he played as a reverse winger from the left side so he wasn’t quite out wide — he was tucked in round the corner,” Rodgers said this week.
“Wherever he plays he will make the same movements and he will find the space because he is a world class player.”
Both United and Liverpool have scored 11 goals in their last four league matches with United showing no sign of missing Wayne Rooney who is still a major doubt for Sunday with a knee injury.
Manchester City will be hoping Liverpool can do them a favor although three points against Arsenal at the Emirates will be a tall order for Roberto Mancini’s side especially as midfield powerhouse Yaya Toure is preparing for the African Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast.
City lost 1-0 at Arsenal in April last year when Mario Balotelli was sent off, although they recovered from what seemed like a knockout blow for their title hopes to surge past United in the most dramatic ever finish to a Premier League season.
Balotelli was involved in a training ground bust-up with Mancini last week and although the two volatile Italians appear to have made up, it would be a surprise if Balotelli earns himself a starting slot in north London.
Arsenal are playing catch-up in the battle for a top-four place having fallen four points behind fourth-placed Chelsea.
After scoring twice on his debut in the FA Cup at Southampton last week Demba Ba could make his first league start for Chelsea as they try to penetrate Stoke City’s rock-like defence on Saturday.
Third-placed Tottenham Hotspur can move to within three points of Manchester City if they win at bottom club Queens Park Rangers on Saturday although they will be up against former manager Harry Redknapp as he continues his latest Houdini act following their 1-0 win at Chelsea last week.