21st-Century Derby: Best of Liverpool vs. Best of Manchester United

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Liverpool vs. Manchester United is a derby built on a longstanding rivalry between the cities.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United is a derby built on a longstanding rivalry between the cities.STRINGER/Getty Images

After the lull of an international break, the Premier League is back with a bang on Saturday, when Liverpool and Manchester United do battle at Anfield.

The north-west powerhouses meet on Merseyside in the latest chapter of a storied rivalry that stretches back to the industrial revolution. While they have noisy neighbours to deal with in their own cities, this fixture means so much to both sets of supporters.

Yet the result echoes far beyond the region. As Empire of the Kop pointed out on Twitter, this is a domestic game the world wants to watch:

Ahead of the showdown, Bleacher Report has delved into the past. Going back to the start of the 21st century, we have selected what we believe to be the best XI from each club.

However, it’s your call over which team would run out victorious.

        

Liverpool

Goalkeeper: Pepe Reina

Pepe Reina replaced Jerzy Dudek after the Pole starred in a UEFA Champions League final.

Pepe Reina replaced Jerzy Dudek after the Pole starred in a UEFA Champions League final.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

With both teams, there were positions where it was tough to pick between a number of strong candidates. Goalkeeper for Liverpool, however, wasn’t one of them.

Jerzy Dudek will forever be a hero for his penalty heroics in the 2005 UEFA Champions League final against AC Milan in Istanbul, but he misses out to the man Rafael Benitez signed to replace him.

Pepe Reina wasn’t perfect during his time in England—he sometimes seemed drawn to crosses like a moth to a flame—yet the Spaniard had a presence in the penalty area that Dudek—and incumbent stopper Simon Mignolet, for that matter—struggled to possess.

        

Right-Back: Steve Finnan

Steve Finnan comes out on top in the battle to start at right-back.

Steve Finnan comes out on top in the battle to start at right-back.ANDREW YATES/Getty Images

Rob Jones’ injury-hit career was over by the time the new millennium arrived. German Markus Babbel basically had one good season, albeit a trophy-laden one at that in 2000/01.

Alvaro Arbeloa had some good games in the position, yet he also lined up on the left at times. Of the more recent incumbents, Glen Johnson flattered to deceive, while Nathaniel Clyne looks good defensively but lacks a cutting edge going forward.

So in something of a surprise, the unassuming Steve Finnan wins the battle to start.

The £3.5 million signing from Fulham played 217 games for the Reds between 2003 and 2008, and while he now runs a property business, he should feel right at home in this Liverpool XI alongside some familiar faces.

        

Centre-Backs: Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia

Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia: Liverpool's centre-back pairing in Istanbul.

Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia: Liverpool’s centre-back pairing in Istanbul.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

A committed, uncomplicated defender, Jamie Carragher made 737 appearances for Liverpool.

While used in both full-back positions during the early stages of his career, Carra formed an excellent working relationship with Sami Hyypia at the heart of Liverpool’s back four during the Benitez years. How the Reds wish they had either of the duo around now.

While comfortably ensconced in a media role these days, the competitive Carragher would surely relish the chance to play against Manchester United one more time (particularly if it allowed him to nobble Sky Sports colleague Gary Neville).

Hyypia—a colossal presence at the heart of Liverpool’s defence for a decade—was one half of a successful centre-back partnership with Stephane Henchoz before teaming up with Carragher.

The Finn was pivotal in helping Gerard Houllier’s Reds complete a cup treble in the 2000/01 season , plus he was also part of Benitez’s bunch that completed the improbable comeback against AC Milan in the 2005.

Strong in the tackle, aerially dominant and an excellent reader of the game, Hyypia made over 450 appearances before bidding a tearful farewell in 2009.

             

Left-Back: John Arne Riise

John Arne Riise thumped in a memorable free-kick against Manchester United in 2001.

John Arne Riise thumped in a memorable free-kick against Manchester United in 2001.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Liverpool do not have too many strong options to start at left-back. In the Premier League era, it has been a problem position for a host of managers—and to think Roy Hodgson believed the solution was Paul Konchesky.

John Arne Riise is the strongest candidate of the lot despite having defensive deficiencies. There was hardly a great deal of competition, but the Norwegian won the League Cup and FA Cup, as well as the Champions League, during his 348 games for the Reds.

Riise also became a fan favourite thanks to his hammer of a left foot.

He used it to good effect against Manchester United in November 2001 too, thumping a howitzer of a free-kick beyond Fabien Barthez in a 3-1 league win at Anfield.

             

Holding Midfielder: Javier Mascherano

Javier Mascherano battles with Wayne Rooney during a derby game.

Javier Mascherano battles with Wayne Rooney during a derby game.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Struggling for first-team minutes at West Ham United, Javier Mascherano was rescued by Benitez in January 2007. The move worked for all sides; the Argentina international rejuvenated his faltering career, while Liverpool added a midfielder perfectly suited to playing in their system.

“Benitez lifted me out of a dark hole 20 metres underground and put me up on a high,” Mascherano told Panenka (h/t ESPN.co.uk).

Occasionally, El Jefecito (which translates to The Little Chief) crossed the line. He made 139 appearances for the Reds but missed many games because of disciplinary issues, including picking up red cards in two different games against Manchester United.

Mascherano made tackles, broke up play and used the ball wisely, all while playing on the edge. He just pips the popular Dietmar Hamann to occupy the holding role in front of our back four.

              

Central Midfielders: Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard

Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard were a midfield match made in footballing heaven.

Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard were a midfield match made in footballing heaven.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Liverpool fans fell head over heels for Xabi Alonso, which explains why his departure to Real Madrid in 2009 still rankles with many (particularly as Benitez believed Gareth Barry to be a better option).

The Spaniard provided a touch of serenity in the hurly-burly world of the Premier League, spraying around passes like an NFL quarterback. There was the odd goal too—sometimes even from inside his own half.

Liverpool made a profit when they agreed to let Alonso head home, but the money couldn’t compensate for the absence of a midfield maestro who left a lasting impression during his time on Merseyside, both on and off the field.

Steven Gerrard once again lines up alongside Alonso in our Liverpool midfield. Stevie G, who made his debut in 1998 under Houllier, was the complete package in his prime.

A tenacious tackler, a pinpoint passer and a scorer of spectacular goals, the local lad grew up in the spotlight and, despite interest from others, stuck around to become a club legend. He won the UEFA Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup, but the Premier League title eluded him in his 17-year stint with the Liverpool first team.

He enjoyed some notable highs against Manchester United too, including helping Liverpool beat the Red Devils in the 2003 League Cup final.

There were also kissing-the-camera celebrations after scoring in away victories in 2009 and 2014, although Gerrard’s final appearance against the Reds’ bitter adversaries ended early, as he was sent off just 38 seconds after coming on as a half-time substitute.

           

Central Attacking Midfielder: Philippe Coutinho

Philippe Coutinho scored a sensational goal at Old Trafford in the 2015/16 season.

Philippe Coutinho scored a sensational goal at Old Trafford in the 2015/16 season.Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

As we have deployed a diamond midfield for the hosts, Philippe Coutinho gets the chance to affect the game from a central position as the most advanced of our selections in the engine room.

The Brazilian—signed for a bargain £8.5 million from Inter Milan in 2013—served as a fine accompaniment to Liverpool’s star names early in his Anfield career, but he is now the main man on Merseyside.

After Barcelona failed in their pursuit of the 25-year-old in the summer, Coutinho has put the transfer saga to one side and focused on playing football.

His equalising goal against Manchester United in the 2016 UEFA Europa League round-of-16 second-leg tie at Old Trafford was a thing of beauty. And as Squawka Football pointed out, he also has a habit of finding the net from distance:

           

Strikers: Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez

Fernando Torres is probably still running through Nemanja Vidic's nightmares.

Fernando Torres is probably still running through Nemanja Vidic’s nightmares.ANDREW YATES/Getty Images

Yes, Fernando Torres threw his toys out of the pram and forced through a move to Chelsea. Yes, El Nino blew hot and cold, enduring frustrating periods on the sidelines during his Liverpool career.

However, when fit and firing on all cylinders, the Spaniard was devastating. He hit the ground running—hardly a surprise considering his pace—and got to 50 Premier League goals for the Reds faster than anyone before him.

With Alonso and Gerrard in the team to pick out his runs in behind, Torres could turn back the clock. He liked terrorising Manchester United as well, with Liverpool fans unlikely to forget his part in the famous 4-1 win at Old Trafford in 2009.

When an unhappy Torres moved to Stamford Bridge, Liverpool used the £50 million fee they received from Chelsea to sign Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in January 2011.

The gamble on Carroll failed to pay off. Suarez, however, was a superb addition. When he wasn’t banned, the striker was a menace to Premier League defences.

The Uruguayan scored 31 goals in 33 games in his final season before joining Barcelona in 2014. It should have secured the title, only Liverpool tripped up when the finishing line was in sight.

The mind boggles at the thought of a live wire like Suarez buzzing around Torres in a front two.

             

Manchester United

David De Gea

David De Gea: Pips Edwin van der Sar to start in goal.

David De Gea: Pips Edwin van der Sar to start in goal.Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

Unlike Liverpool, picking Manchester United’s best goalkeeper since 2000 did throw up more than one option. Barthez wasn’t one of them, and neither was Tim Howard.

Edwin van der Sar, however, defied Father Time after moving to Old Trafford in 2005. He was the club’s best ‘keeper since Peter Schmeichel (who left in 1999 by the way) and played a starring role in the penalty-shootout success over Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final.

Yet despite the Dutchman’s impressive CV, he misses out to David De Gea, the Red Devils’ current No. 1.

Having once resembled a rabbit in the headlights in the early stages of his career in England, De Gea is one of, if not the best in the world at his position.

It’s a close call, but the Spaniard with the ridiculous reflexes starts between the sticks.

          

Right-Back: Gary Neville

Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville: The best of enemies.

Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville: The best of enemies.Michael Regan/Getty Images

Neville and Liverpool fans have a love-hate relationship, as in they love to hate each other.

The right-back—who was once fined for celebrating a goal vociferously in front of the visiting Liverpool fans after a game at Old Trafford in January 2006—formed a wonderful combination down the right flank with good friend David Beckham before the latter left in 2003.

Made club captain after Roy Keane’s departure in November 2005, Neville was slowed by injuries in the latter stages of a playing career that came to an end in 2011. However, those final seasons shouldn’t overshadow just how good he was at his peak.

         

Centre-Backs: Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand nearly ended up being on opposing sides in the derby.

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand nearly ended up being on opposing sides in the derby.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Sir Alex Ferguson broke the British transfer record to get Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United in 2002. In hindsight, the centre-back turned out to be well worth the £30 million outlay.

Tall, elegant in possession and with a natural ability to read the game, Ferdinand enjoyed 12 trophy-laden years with Manchester United.

His partnership with Nemanja Vidic was the bedrock for five Premier League titles, so the Serb obviously slots in alongside his long-time ally. However, it would have been a different story had he joined United’s rivals.

“Yes. Rafa Benitez called me and I nearly went there,” Vidic told FourFourTwo. “I was interested in going but my English wasn’t good and I was struggling to communicate.”

Liverpool’s loss was United’s gain.

Uncompromising and uncomplicated, Vidic did have a few issues against Liverpool—he was sent off four times in the meetings—but is still a clear choice for this XI.

        

Left-Back: Patrice Evra

Luis Suarez, Patrice Evra and the handshake that never happened.

Luis Suarez, Patrice Evra and the handshake that never happened.Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

After a tough baptism to the Premier League in the form of a Manchester derby, Patrice Evra adapted to English football to become a mainstay on the left side of United’s back four from 2006 onward.

The Frenchman has history with Liverpool too. In a league game at Anfield in October 2011, Suarez was accused of racially abusing Evra. The striker was found guilty and handed an eight-match ban—leading to a controversial non-handshake when the teams met in the return fixture the following year.

Evra lifted five Premier League titles and was part of the Champions League-winning side in Moscow in 2008.

He left for Juventus in 2014 and is now at Olympique de Marseille in his native France. Evra is also building quite the social media following with his upbeat Instagram posts.

           

Central Midfielders: Roy Keane and Paul Scholes

Roy Keane and Paul Scholes: Midfield maestros for Manchester United.

Roy Keane and Paul Scholes: Midfield maestros for Manchester United.Phil Cole/Getty Images

Roy Keane and Paul Scholes are two of the best midfielders to have graced the Premier League.

They could do it all. Well, perhaps not quite. Tackling wasn’t Scholes’ strong point, while Keane occasionally went over the top when thundering into a challenge (just ask Alf-Inge Haaland).

Yet the pair could undoubtedly play. Keane was a driving force from the engine room, a leader on the field who expected high standards to be met by his team-mates. Even the fans weren’t safe, at least not the ones who enjoyed eating prawn sandwiches on their visits to Old Trafford.

Keane, by the way, faced Liverpool in his final match for United. An infamous rant on MUTV led to an acrimonious departure in 2005 after his relationship with Ferguson broke down.

Scholes stayed at United throughout his career, even coming out of retirement during an injury crisis early in 2012. A silent assassin who barely uttered a word to the media during his playing days, Scholes was Zinedine Zidane’s toughest opponent and a role model for Xavi, according to journalist Mark Ogden, then of the Daily Telegraph.

When his boots were hung up for good in 2013, Scholes had made 718 appearances and scored 155 goals for United.

A complete footballer, the Englishman was a pinpoint passer who, in his best years, mastered the art of making late runs from midfield into the penalty area.

               

Right Wing: Cristiano Ronaldo

Sir Alex Ferguson was encouraged by his own players to buy Cristiano Ronaldo.

Sir Alex Ferguson was encouraged by his own players to buy Cristiano Ronaldo.ANDREW YATES/Getty Images

The talented boy from Portugal grew up to become a global superstar during his time in Manchester. In 196 Premier League appearances, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 84 goals and provided 34 assists.

The Portuguese dazzled during his time in England before going on to break records at Real Madrid. According to Sam Pilger’s profile for Bleacher Report, Manchester United’s players pushed Ferguson to sign Ronaldo after coming up against the talented teenager in a pre-season friendly in August 2003.

With Cristiano selected on the right, Beckham is squeezed out of the XI.

He was influential in the late 1990s but had left by the summer of 2003. His crosses would be missed in this team, yet Ronaldo’s scoring record merits a place, and he tended to be used out wide when at United.

                 

Left Wing: Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs: compared to a cocker spaniel by his former manager.

Ryan Giggs: compared to a cocker spaniel by his former manager.Michael Regan/Getty Images

A one-club man, Ryan Giggs wound down his playing days in central midfield.

However, he’s selected here on the left wing, a position he occupied for the majority of a career that started in the first team before the Premier League existed (yes, there was football played before 1992).

The Welshman was poetry in motion in his prime. A twisting, turning speed demon complete with hairy chest and a penchant for scoring eye-catching solo goals.

“You knew right away…the way [Giggs] ran over the ground,” Ferguson told Simon Stone of BBC Sport. “I referred to it like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind. His feet never seemed to touch the ground.”

             

Strikers: Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy

Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney training together for Manchester United.

Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney training together for Manchester United.Guang Niu/Getty Images

United had to patiently wait to get Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was due to sign in 2000 before suffering a serious knee injury. He arrived the following year—and quickly made up for lost time.

The Dutchman was prolific for the Red Devils, grabbing 150 goals in 218 appearances. However, his scoring feats came at a time when the club was in a state of transition, with Ferguson fazing out some of the treble-winning squad of 1999.

An outstanding finisher who had the knack of being in the right place at the right time, Van Nistelrooy left in something of a huff to join Real Madrid after five high-scoring years in Manchester.

Like Suarez working with Torres for Liverpool, Wayne Rooney would serve as an excellent partner for Van Nistelrooy.

Manchester United’s all-time leading goalscorer (he finished with 253 goals for the club) faded a little down the stretch, but his signing in 2004 was still a brilliant bit of business by Ferguson and sparked a new era of dominance.

There were plenty of others to choose from up top, even with Eric Cantona ruled out of consideration (he retired at the age of 30 at the end of the 1996/97 campaign).

The deadly duo of Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke, as well as Teddy Sheringham, all left in the early years of the 21st century, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suffered rotten luck with injuries late in his career with United before retiring in 2007.

Dimitar Berbatov, Robin van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would all be worthy of selection for their achievements with the Red Devils, but Van Nistelrooy’s scoring feats and Rooney’s record-breaking total of goals makes it tough to look beyond the pair.

           

Final Teams

Liverpool (4-1-2-1-2): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Mascherano; Alonso, Gerrard; Coutinho; Torres, Suarez.

Manchester United (4-2-4): De Gea; G. Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Scholes, Keane; Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Giggs.

            

Thanks to Paul Ansorge—Bleacher Report’s Manchester United correspondent—for providing help picking the Red Devils team.

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