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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 October, 2009, 12:00am

Local derbies could have a big influence on the outcome of the English Premier League title race, and they don't come much bigger than tomorrow's clash between Liverpool and Manchester United. It may not be a one-city rivalry, but it is bitter, fierce and usually contested for high stakes.

The showdown at Anfield is no exception and the atmosphere will be heightened by the problems swirling around Liverpool and their manager, Rafa Benitez. United have a good recent record at Anfield and their fans will be relishing the prospect of inflicting a fifth straight defeat on Liverpool, which might be a fatal blow both for Benitez's title hopes and for his job.

The crisis at Liverpool has been deepened in recent games by the absence of their two key players, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, and the return of one or both of those talismanic figures could hold the key to their chance of bouncing back to form in this massive game.

Yet it is possible to read too much into that factor, because Liverpool won this fixture 2-1 last season without Gerrard and Torres in the starting line-up, though Gerrard did come on in the 68th minute with the scores level. Then, however, Liverpool had Xabi Alonso in tandem with Javier Mascherano to anchor the midfield and make Liverpool more secure than they have looked so far this season.

Each sector of the Liverpool side has shown vulnerability this season, from a defence that has kept only two clean sheets in nine league games to a midfield that looks less solid and an attack that lacks creativity when Gerrard and Torres are absent or not on top form.

Last season Liverpool had 20 clean sheets in 38 league games, so clearly their problems start at the back. Professional analysts are divided over the merits of their zonal marking system but, whatever your view on that, a clear lack of confidence in the defence has let them down this season.

Up front, Liverpool have had no problems scoring when both Gerrard and Torres have played - six goals against Hull, four against Stoke and Burnley, three against Bolton and West Ham - but their all-round game has come up short in the biggest games. In the Premier League they lost 2-1 at Tottenham on the opening day, 3-1 at Anfield against Aston Villa and 2-0 away to Chelsea, while in the Champions League they lost 2-0 at Fiorentina and 2-1 at home to Lyon.

There is a simple divide in Liverpool's league form - five wins out of five against teams below them in the table and four defeats out of four against the teams above them. Similarly in the Champions League, they beat the weakest team in their group, Debrecen, but have lost to the two teams of much higher quality, Fiorentina and Lyon.

Improvement is needed, and quickly, if Liverpool are to stave off the threat from United tomorrow. Before last season's defeat, Anfield had been a happy hunting ground for United, who had won five and drawn one of their previous six league visits. United's away form this season has been good, apart from the blip at Burnley when they did not play particularly well in a 1-0 defeat but still should have taken something from the game. Since then, they have all three away games in the league, scoring 10 goals and conceding just one.

In the Champions League, they have won two out of two on the road, both with clean sheets, and Wednesday's controlled 1-0 win at CSKA Moscow was a record-equalling 14th away game without defeat in Europe's elite competition.

United have injury problems of their own, but their squad has much greater resilience even when one of their main men is missing. Wayne Rooney's calf injury deprived them of their best player for their last two games but still they were able to beat Bolton 2-1 at Old Trafford and follow up with a win in Moscow.

Rooney's return would seal the deal for United, while a repeat of their Moscow performance without him would give Liverpool plenty of problems.

The banker home wins in the Premier League should be Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City, and the best away chances are Portsmouth, Everton and Arsenal.

The chances of the short-priced teams need little explanation, but Portsmouth and Everton are less obvious fancies.

Portsmouth are coming off an away win last time out, at Wolves, and they have a good chance to follow up at Hull, who have won only five of their 23 home games in the Premier League. Four of Portsmouth's defeats have been against teams in the top six, and another was against a top-six finisher from last season (Everton), so they could be open to improvement now that the ownership issue has been settled.

Everton have been slow starters again and were hammered 5-0 at Benfica in the Europa League, but they have lost only one of their last six in the Premier League and rate a good handicap chance against Bolton, who have won only two out of eight - both against teams below them in the table. Everton are better than that and should prove it.

Blue heaven

Wins for Everton in their last eight games against Bolton, with only one defeat: 6

United we stand

Of Manchester United's last six victories against Liverpool, those that have ended 1-0 are: 4

City slickers

Manchester City have won every home game against bottom-half opponents since the start of last season: 12

Top five tips

1 Portsmouth on handicap

Competitive despite their problems and open to improvement

2 Forest away win on handicap HAD

Unbeaten away and going for a sixth consecutive win

3 Southend on handicap

Good chance against the team with the joint-highest number of home defeats

4 Milton Keynes Dons on handicap

On a four-game winning run and look solid all round

5 Leicester on handicap

Have adjusted well to a higher level and this is a winning chance

Shortlist: Portsmouth, Nottingham Forest, Stockport, Southend, Colchester, Swindon, Milton Keynes Dons, Atletico Madrid, Valenciennes, Palermo, Paris Saint Germain, Leicester