For one week in March 2009, we ruled the world.
March 10th: Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid.
March 14th: Manchester United 1-4 Liverpool.
It was the golden era of the Benitez years, a time when we felt genuinely unstoppable, putting two of the most globally revered names in world football to the sword. It was a wonderful time to be a Liverpool supporter where you dreams were engulfed by the maximum achievements possible.
5 years on from that unforgettable week, there is no midweek mauling of Spain’s finest on the cards this time around. However a return to that arena is creeping up on the horizon and with a weekend trip to Old Trafford beckoning just like it did 5 years ago, Liverpool have the perfect chance to show the true extent of their worth.
Cast your mind back to March 11th 2009. You just woke up after watching your team annihilate Real Madrid and if you’re honest with yourself, you weren’t too surprised. You were more gleeful about beating the name Real Madrid rather than what the actual team at the time had to offer. Let’s face it, we were the European football experts under Benitez and mauling a side mixed with has-been’s and never-will-be’s was not going to exactly spark off wild scenes of jubilation outside St. Georges Hall.
It was the game looming on the Saturday that really caught the attention of all Kopites that wee. Manchester United were 7 points clear at the top of the league and 9 goals better off than their Merseyside counterparts. Liverpool being successful in Europe was not enough to make the greater public do more than nod their head silently in approval, but a victory at Old Trafford would really make them sit up and take notice.
It was all about sending a statement. Liverpool had (and still don’t have) much pedigree when it comes to title challenging so everything magical about that week in 2009 rested solely on victory at Old Trafford. Beating Real Madrid was merely the curtain raiser to what would either be an epic or a tragedy.
On that Saturday morning, United dominated the opening 22 minutes, taking the lead from a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty after Reina brought down Ji-Sung Park in the box. It seemed at this point that the world had returned to its axis: Liverpool unable to turn European form into domestic glory.
However after a long and speculative clearance from Martin Skrtel was hunted down by Fernando Torres, leaving Nemanja Vidic on his backside, the Spaniard dispatched his opportunity to bring the game level and subsequently turn everything we knew about football on its head.
It was the moment we had arrived to the biggest table in English football, pulled up a chair, lashed our feet up on top of the table much to the horror of our Manc counterparts and said “What of it?!”
If you’re looking back on this game to see some embarrassing stats that show Manchester United chewed up and spit back out in their own back garden, you will be disappointed. The figures from this game show it to be quite even in terms of exchanges of phases of possession and how oft both teams threatened the others goal. Therefore it is a fair analysis that the game was a well-fought, even contest.
However this was a game that perfectly illustrates that you don’t need to dominate the spreadsheet to win a game comprehensively and put in the better tactical performance.
This was an extremely good Manchester United side and with Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo all playing, they were never going to be completely dictated to and dominated by an opposing team at Old Trafford.
However what Liverpool did extraordinarily well this day was that they were clinical and disciplined; traits that will forever resonate with Rafa. As previously stated, our first goal came from a long ball clearance, our second was a penalty, our third was a free-kick, and our fourth was an outrageous lob.
Lots of Manchester United fans look upon those goals (and the sending off of Vidic) as signs of ‘one of those days’ but is unfair to scoff at what Liverpool did as mere fortune. These goals were unquestionably the products of a brilliant tactical display.
Liverpool squeezed Manchester United, sent Ronaldo and Park down into cul-de-sacs out wide, hunted down by the full-back and Mascherano and Lucas in tandem. Anytime Carrick or Anderson tried to feed United’s front two, Mascherano and Lucas were this time not the supporting act but the main stars, with Skrtel and Hyypia permanently etched onto the backside of Rooney and Tevez.
Liverpool squeezed Manchester United so hard that eventually the cap blew off and the ball fell to Gerrard and Torres in attacking positions, void of a defensive midfielder to negotiate with and two centre backs where one did not know how to step forward on Gerrard and the other completely at sea at how to deal with Torres.
Liverpool beat Manchester United into submission. It was wonderfully ruthless. It was the pinnacle of the Benitez years.
What can we learn from that afternoon as we go in search of our first victory at Old Trafford since that memorable day?
The landscape of world football has changed much since March 14th 2009. As United kept themselves steadily at the top of the game, Liverpool dramatically fell off the edge of the cliff and have been hanging on ever since with their finger nails, crawling their way slowly back up the cliff face.
Then out of nowhere, Ferguson appointed Moyes as the new United manager and Rodgers bought Sturridge to partner Suarez up front for Liverpool and everything we knew from the past 5 years was turned upside down.
Now as we ready ourselves for another trip behind the prawn-sandwich frontline, Brendan Rodgers has a very different task to that of Benitez 5 years previously.
Liverpool are yet again looking to close a 7 point gap at the top of the table but it isn’t Manchester United who sit in the privileged top position this time around. United are now 11 points behind Liverpool in 7th with a 23 goal difference deficit.
If those stats don’t make you beam from ear to ear then you need a serious case of head wobbling.
Despite the lesser extent of United’s challenge this time around for Rodgers, the requirement remains the same: Comprehensive victory.
We are in a title race right now just like we were before the same trip to Old Trafford in 2009. We need to do exactly the same things as we did in 2009 but this time, in Rodgers’ way.
So for every moment we smothered United and hit them hard on the break in 2009, we need to put ball after ball in behind their back four this time around, have Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling running at them with the ferocity that has seen them become one of the most dynamic front trio in the league.
For every time Mascherano and Lucas led United players down blind allies and pick-pocketed them, this time around we need Henderson out of the blocks and cutting out United’s movement at the source with his high-pitch pressing.
Different methods, different principles, but the same ultimate goal.
At this stage, it’s a bit of a hollow comment to say “this game is the biggest of the season” seeming ever since we put Tottenham to the sword 5-0 at White Hart Lane every outing has led us to constantly question the sturdiness of our foundation in the Champions League places.
So far though we have not been disappointed and we are now beginning to not only believe we will make the Champions League but that we actually deserve it and who knows, maybe deserve something a bit more too. Every challenge thrown at this team has been handled with the expertise of the Benitez 2008/09 side. The omens are looking good.
However Liverpool-Manchester United always throws up something more significant. Apart from Liverpool’s necessity to remain in this title race and United’s need to show sign of life, the symbolism victory would provide for either team would be priceless.
Moyes needs this every bit as much as Rodgers. So even though the stats are piled up in Liverpool’s favour, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a foregone conclusion that the job is done. As we discussed earlier, United held all the statistical cards on May 14th 2009 but it was the team that was more clinical and opportunistic that won the day.
That scoreboard flashing 4-1 in bright neon red colours is a memory that will be savoury till the end of our days.
The interesting thing 5 years on is that if it happens again on March 16th 2014, seeing the same scoreboard won’t be as much as a surprise.
That’s where we are right now. This team is capable of beating Man United 4-1 on Sunday, no doubt about it. We are unquestionably the better team than Manchester United, a fact that has not been the case since before the inception of the Premier League. We have a chance to simultaneously keep ourselves in the title race and cement our position as superior to our Manchester foes.
In 1993, Manchester United came to Anfield and beat us 2-1 in a game that had a feeling of the tide turning. Echoes of that resonate in the air this week. So while we have the chance to do something similar to 1993 and 2003 – and pardon my french – let’s bury these fuckers into the ground.