Paul Parker

Room for optimism at Anfield

Paul Parker

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Match of the weekend: Liverpool
v Manchester United

Liverpool versus Manchester United is the biggest game of the
season for both teams, and this time there are even more reasons to get
excited. You have to go back to 1953 for the last time Liverpool
lost five on the bounce, and a defeat on Sunday would increase the pressure of
Rafa Benitez to almost unbearable levels. The club's
fans have focused their anger on the owners, but they are starting to realise
it's what is happening on the pitch
that is the problem. That said, I feel a Liverpool
win could change everything. I think this will be a season where the champions could
lose as many as six games, and if they beat United they will be no more than
six points off the top. Their situation is serious, but not irreversible.

Player to watch: Wayne Rooney

There has been so much emphasis on Liverpool's
reliance on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres that you could almost forget
United might be without their most influential player. Since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure, Rooney's
importance has increased and he has stepped up his performances accordingly. He
is the main focal point of the attack and the spark that gets everyone going. United
played a controlled game at CSKA Moscow on Wednesday, but you could tell they
missed Rooney's energy, invention
and eye for goal. Michael Owen has only performed in fits and starts this
season, while we all know how variable Dimitar Berbatov's
performances can be. If Rooney misses out it will be a massive boost to a Liverpool back line that has been uncharacteristically
shaky this season.

Upset of the weekend: Wolverhampton Wanderers
v Aston Villa

I haven't
been too impressed with Wolves this season, and under normal circumstances
Molineux is not the most intimidating place to visit. However, they will be
really fired up for this West Midlands derby
and I wouldn't put a win past them
if they score the first goal. Villa are in good form but there is always a risk
of a letdown after a win like they had over Chelsea. They will still be favourites, and
rightly so, but Mick McCarthy will definitely have targeted this game as one
that could potentially kick-start Wolves'

Under pressure: Gianfranco Zola

covered Benitez, so it has to be Zola here. There is talk of a takeover at West
Ham, but even if they get an injection of money they won't
be able to improve the team until January - by which time they could be in
serious trouble. Coming from East London, I
know the fans there love Zola and are desperate for him to turn things around, but
it just isn't happening at the moment. Zola's
side have been conceding a lot of bad goals, which is clearly a concern, and
when you have a leaky defence the last team you want to come up against is
Arsenal. They have doled out some thrashings this season and Hammers fans will
be concerned this might be another. The one positive is that Arsenal will at
least give them a chance to play, but I wouldn't
be too optimistic.

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