SURELY high noon would have been a more appropriate kick-off time when Liverpool’s recent revival faces the ultimate test tomorrow.
After all, the Old Trafford clash with Manchester United is likely to be decided by a shoot-out between the Premier League’s two most prolific marksmen, Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez.
Van Persie leads the way with 16 goals, one more than his Uruguayan rival, and the pair are likely to be nip and tuck in the race for the Golden Boot between now and the end of the season.
Both are in form. Van Persie has nine in his last nine games – three of which have been scored in the last minute – while Suarez has netted six in five.
As has been the case for much of the season, the United man proved the difference when the two bitter North West rivals met at Anfield in September, his late penalty helping the visitors come from behind to complete an unlikely 2-1 triumph despite the controversial first-half sending-off of Liverpool’s Jonjo Shelvey.
Even at £24million, van Persie appears to be the buy of the season.
Under the transfer policy of Fenway Sports Group, however, Liverpool would not be interested in spending vast amounts on a 29-year-old who would have significantly less resale value come the end of his contract, even though Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini admits the Dutchman could be the man who wins the title back for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Youth rather than experience is the preferred route for the Anfield owners, hence the continued pursuit of 20-year-old Blackpool winger Tom Ince having already splashed out £12million this month on 23-year-old Daniel Sturridge.
But could Rodgers be tempted into parting with Suarez for van Persie?
“I've already got Suarez, so I wouldn't want to swap, that's for sure,” responds the Liverpool manager.
“All strikers bring different things to the game. I think we're blessed to have someone like Luis who has carried the club for the first six months of this season by himself, in terms of being a lone striker.
“He was our only fit and available frontman and he is a player who, every single day, gives everything. Some people have off days but this is a guy who is up for the game. His motivation is at a high level every day in training.
“You can't ask for any more from him. I'm very blessed and privileged to work with such a player.”
Rodgers adds: “I spoke to Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard when I came here and they said ‘boss you’ll be amazed by him, he performs the same in every game, whether it’s a bottom of the table team or Chelsea, Man United or Man City’.
“They were spot on. It’s a massive credit to how he prepares himself. He’s a player who hurts when we lose. He really cares, and when he shows the care he does, that’s why people want to support him and help him.”
Suarez received such backing this week after the furore sparked by his controversial ‘handball’ goal that ultimately proved the winner in Liverpool’s FA Cup third round tie at non-League Mansfield Town last Sunday.
Mansfield Town chairman John Radford was particularly vociferous with his resentment towards the Uruguayan, but Rodgers doesn’t believe the Uruguayan will be affected by the criticism.
“I really felt for Suarez last week,” says the Liverpool manager. “He got absolutely vilified, it was ludicrous the amount of stuff that was said against him.
“Don’t get me wrong. There are some sports, snooker or golf for example, where the etiquette is important. If you are playing snooker and you might touch the ball and the other player doesn’t see it, you put your hand up. That’s the etiquette of the game.
“That doesn’t happen in football. It’s just the way of the game, worldwide not just here.
“Suarez, unfortunately given what’s happened in the past, is vilified for it. But does it make a difference to him? No. If anything, it’s actually fuel for his mentality because he is so strong.
“I never see a change. I never see him really down, and he’s on the pitch every day. He’s never injured or feeling sorry for himself. He’s a top player.”
Liverpool make the trip down to the other end of the East Lancs Road having enjoyed a significant improvement since the beginning of December.
The 3-1 defeats against Aston Villa and Stoke City may continue to linger in the minds of supporters – and highlight the inconsistency Rodgers is determined to eradicate during the second half of the season – but otherwise Liverpool have won seven of their last nine games.
Since the opening-day debacle against West Bromwich Albion, they have lost one two domestic away games with only United, Manchester City and Everton having scored more on their travels.
That said, Liverpool’s recent record at Old Trafford is dismal. The historic 4-1 triumph in March 2009 is the only one of the last 10 visits to have not ended in defeat.
Suarez will nevertheless take encouragement tomorrow from a surprisingly leaky United backline that has shipped 42 goals in all competitions this season. By comparison, Liverpool have conceded one fewer having played one more game.
United, though, have scored 20 more goals than Liverpool’s 34 in the Premier League, underlining the Anfield outfit’s reliance on Suarez that Rodgers will hope be eased by the arrival of Sturridge.
The new boy took only seven minutes to open his account at Mansfield, but his obvious lack of fitness means he is almost certain to start on the bench.
“Daniel hadn't had a lot of game time or training time over the period of a couple of months,” says Rodgers. “But you saw him for 55 minutes, and you saw his pace and his power and his threat on the ball. He's going to be a terrific player for our future.”
The present, though, will be Suarez. And whoever gets the better of his showdown with van Persie is likely to ride off the happiest into the Old Trafford sunset tomorrow.