Early Doors

All eyes on Anfield

A clash between Liverpool and Manchester United always dominates the football agenda, but Sunday's game at Anfield has far more than just three points and regional pride at stake.

When we open our newspapers on Monday, will we be reading about the chants that shamed a sport, or columns in praise of the way in which supporters put aside deep-rooted differences to respectfully pay tribute to 96 football fans who lost their lives?

A lot hinges on how the United fans conduct themselves at the weekend.

It is fair to say the last team Liverpool would want to be coming to Anfield for the first game after the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel's devastating report is Manchester United, but they are.

It should be an afternoon for sombre reflection about one of the great injustices in British society, a day when Liverpool have a rightful need to pay their respects to the victims and salute the families who kept the fight for justice alive despite a vicious smear campaign orchestrated by the authorities. But there are legitimate fears that the occasion will be spoiled.

We already know that a minority of Manchester United fans chose to mark last weekend's match against Wigan with chants of 'Always the victim, it's never your fault'.

Though some attempted to claim they were referencing the Suarez-Evra case from last season, those words had an unambiguous, shameful meaning coming just days after Liverpool supporters were completely exonerated of any blame in the HIP report.

Commendably, United were quick to condemn those supporters who partook in the chant, taking the unusual step of releasing a statement critical of their own fans. Sir Alex Ferguson has also asked those representing the club in the Anfield stands to be respectful on Sunday and not bring shame on United.

As if to reinforce the point, captain Nemanja Vidic made his own plea this morning, saying: "I am aware of the sensitivity of the day. Everybody is. There is a lot of talk in the papers and the media. I think our fans will respond well.

"The whole country is on test in this one. All over the world they will be watching this game. It is probably the biggest derby in the world and we have to show we are capable of keeping a good atmosphere and being a good example to the kids.

"There is a lot of history with these two clubs. I think we should respect each other because we are big clubs and clubs that are respected in the world. We have to be on top of the bad situation and behave well and, I would say, be an example.

"I've been here for seven years and I think our fans always behave well and I think they will do it again. It is difficult to control all the fans but I think most of them are aware of the responsibility. On the pitch we have to take responsibility and play football. After this game everyone should be talking about the football and that's all. I hope that will be the case."

Vidic and his opposite number Steven Gerrard will release 96 balloons prior to kick-off in a united show of respect that all concerned hopes will translate to the stands. What a show of solidarity it would be for United supporters to observe the day impeccably, to pay their respects to the dead.

Early Doors is not arguing for a hippie singalong involving both sets of fans - a little hatred is what helps make this one of the best football fixtures in the world, and no one is expecting a love-in. But some things are bigger than rivalry, and Hillsborough is indisputably one of them.

It could quite easily have been Manchester United playing that FA Cup semi-final in a ground without a valid safety certificate, their fans corralled by a police force that had lost control of the situation and their dead and dying lying unattended while a stream of ambulances remained parked outside.

It could have been 96 United fans who never returned from a day at the football, their names blackened by police propaganda and their families suffering indignity after indignity as officials dodged blame at every turn. It could have been United fans accused of urinating on police and pickpocketing the dead under the headline 'The Truth', the stigma taking 23 years to fully dissipate.

But it was Liverpool who were the victims of Britain's worst post-war disaster and what has been described as the biggest cover-up in the country's history. And on an emotionally fraught afternoon, anyone who tries to apportion blame where there is none or make light of the 23 years of suffering the club has gone through needs their head checked.

Liverpool fans have a role to play too here. Deciding to boo Patrice Evra for having the temerity to be racially abused by Luis Suarez, as they lamentably did last season, has the potential to be an incendiary act and provocation for any response that could follow from the United end.

If the occasion does descend into rancour then it will be pretty depressing for all concerned. But if United supporters conduct themselves impeccably and Liverpool get the occasion they are hoping for, then we can all feel a bit more positive about the culture of football in this country.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I think (UEFA will act if the accusations are proven). UEFA is very active on this kind of situation and our overall objective is to kick racism out of football. I can't point the finger at anyone in any way shape or form because I didn't hear anything. It's for the authorities to follow up in any kind of investigation." - Andre Villas-Boas is confident UEFA will take action after Lazio fans were heard making monkey chants at three Tottenham players on Thursday evening. ED is confident that Lazio will be able to afford the paltry fine coming their way.

FOREIGN VIEW: Jose Mourinho is taking legal action against a journalist, it was revealed yesterday. Mourinho acted through lawyers against sports daily Marca's editor-in-chief Roberto Palomar following an article he wrote that was published on Monday. "Palomar ... referred to our client as 'the type of person who would flee after knocking someone down'," said an extract of a letter from Mourinho's lawyers published in Thursday's Marca. "In our eyes this phrase is ... degrading and was used in a manner which was completely unnecessary in the critique." The newspaper said that Mourinho has demanded the article be rectified and 15,000 euros ($19,600) in damages which he will donate to the local football team his son plays for.

COMING UP: We bring you all the news from Friday's round of pre-match press conferences as well as previewing all the games in the Premier League this weekend. At lunch we reveal the winner of our Goal of the Week poll, but before that we have an update from the Bundesliga in Pitchside Europe and the Euroscout looks over Joey Barton's debut for Marseille.