Ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford on Sunday, Jeff Goulding goes back eight years to 2009’s 4-1 demolition of arch-rivals Manchester United.
Today many Reds feel blessed and full of optimism. We have a world-class manager who gets the club and its supporters. He has a track record of success in a foreign league, managing to surpass a superior rival and clinch championships he had no right to. He has arrived at Anfield and immediately stamped his brand on our club and we love him.
It’s not too dissimilar to the way many of us felt back in the spring of 2009, but with one key difference of course. Jurgen Klopp manages a Liverpool side wallowing in financial stability and an ownership that, while certainly not the image of perfection in most Reds’ eyes, lack the obsession with high-priced credit that inflicted Rafa’s bosses.
The two hucksters who bought the club with a payday loan back in 2007 would take the club to the brink of administration. The atmosphere around the club was toxic and the signs of future crises were there even after the 2007 Champions League final defeat to AC Milan in Athens, with Rafa complaining about the American’s propensity for talk and aversion to action.
Benitez was a master politician and in the early days was able to use the leverage of interest from other clubs and the adoration of the supporters to extract concessions from owners who knew so little about football they considered replacing Rafa with Jurgen Klinsmann and would ultimately settle on Roy Hodgson.
He would use these skills to great effect in capturing Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid, in the summer of 2007. His Spanish compatriot would briefly become a darling of the Kop and play a pivotal role in the Reds’ ultimately unsuccessful title charge in 2009.
The year had got off to an inauspicious start with three consecutive draws. Two of them had been hard to bear, with the Reds succumbing to late levellers in matches against Everton and Wigan Athletic, after being ahead in the game and seemingly coasting to victory. The latter was particularly painful as Lucas Leiva had conceded an unnecessary penalty which Mido dispatched. It seemed Liverpool’s title aspirations were fizzling out with the year only days old.
The media, ever on the lookout for a headline, were quick to pin the blame for the slump on Benitez. With the club sitting at the top of the league, Rafa had decided to launch a fierce defence of Liverpool and an attack on United manager Alex Ferguson with a series of “facts”. It became known as “Rafa’s rant” and evoked memories of Keegan’s infamous “I will love it if we beat them” tirade that presaged Newcastle’s collapse in the 1996 title run-in.
In my view it was nothing of the sort and it was about time someone stood up to the United oligarchy. However, many thought it was a huge error. The team did get their act together though, in a fashion, and by the time they lined up at Old Trafford in the March, they were sitting in third place, four points off leaders United and behind Chelsea in second on goal difference only.
It was Europe which provided the comfort throughout our stumblings, as it so often did under Rafa. Under his stewardship Liverpool were ranked No. 1 on the continent, reaching two finals and winning one in the most dramatic circumstances possible. They also reached a slew of semi-finals.
Real Madrid had been visitors to Anfield just days before the epic clash with the old enemy from the other end of the M62. Liverpool had won the first encounter with the giants in Spain 0-1 and the Spaniards had foolishly attempted a bit of bluff and bluster before the return encounter, with Marca displaying the headline “This is Anfield: So What?”
Liverpool and in particular Fernando Torres would ram those words right back down their throats as Liverpool triumphed 4-0.
There could be no better preparation for a game against United, and players and supporters alike would make the journey to Old Trafford brimming with confidence. Still none of us expected a second rout in the space of days.
As is often the case the game was a lunchtime kickoff and featured live on TV. Liverpool’s side was crammed with legends: Hyypia, Carragher and Gerrard were all veterans of that historic night in Istanbul. Rafa had added Reina, Mascherano and Torres since then, along with the relentless Dirk Kuyt who had scored a late consolation in the Athens final, two years earlier.
United boasted a team of seasoned internationals and champions, with Van der Sar, Ferdinand, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo lining up against the Reds. This was a real clash of the titans, with little love lost on the pitch, in the stands or in the dugout. It would end with a humiliation so great for Manchester, that Ferguson was nowhere to be seen during the post-match press call.
For United fans who had consoled themselves before the game, by saying Madrid must have been rubbish because they had conceded a fourth to Andrea Dossena, there was a special gift in the 90th minute. Truly poetic. Mind you, by then the Theatre of Screams was half empty.
However the Reds didn’t get their own way from the off. With the game only 23 minutes old they went behind to a penalty, scored by Cristiano Ronaldo. Ji Sung Park had charged into the box and Reina was adjudged to have brought him down. The Portuguese striker, who Liverpool had famously tried to sign, put the hosts 1-0 in front.
Conceding early at Old Trafford was never good, but to have gifted the opposition their lead made it doubly disastrous in the minds of many. Not to worry, because it wouldn’t take long for Liverpool to restore parity.
United attempted to press their advantage, pouring forward. But one attack led Skrtel to lump a clearance upfield. Vidic looked favourite to get to it, but he committed the cardinal sin of allowing the ball to bounce.
Torres was on it like lightning and robbed the defender, before bearing down on goal. He still had a lot to do, but Van der Sar had no chance as Fernando put the ball in the far corner. Game on, and Kopites were bouncing in the away end.
They had seen nothing yet though and just before half-time found themselves in dreamland as the Spaniard turned provider. Torres clipped a delightful through-ball for Gerrard to chase and the Scouser got there ahead of Evra. However the Frenchman brought our captain down and the referee pointed immediately to the spot.
A penalty, for an away side, at Old Trafford! Magical stuff and the sight of Gerrard doing a star fish in the penalty area was sublime. Not as sublime as him kissing the badge and then the camera, as he gleefully mocked the Stretford End, though.
Half-time and the Reds were in front. But it was only by a single goal and we’d already learned not to get carried away in such fixtures. After all this was a side that couldn’t hold a lead against the likes of Everton and Wigan.
As the second half got underway there were signs of a United rally. Rooney found himself on the end of a Ronaldo cross at the far post, but failed to profit. The Reds were holding firm through a mixture of fortune and hard work and soon United’s fightback would fizzle out.
Vidic was having a horrendous game already, but it was about to get a whole lot worse. Outwitted by Gerrard, he allowed the No. 8 to race clear. Knowing he was beaten and certain Gerrard would fashion another goal, the defender dragged him back. Gerrard went to ground, hands in the air and the referee obliged with a red card. United were down to 10 men and Liverpool had a free-kick about 25 yards out.
Up stepped Fabio Aurelio. The Brazilian was undoubtedly quality, but his career had been dogged by injuries. He put all of that aside though as he swept the ball into the net, to the astonishment of everyone watching. On the touchline Ferguson’s face was a picture, as it turned a crimson shade of purple.
The joy on the pitch, as Fabio’s fist punched the air, was threefold in the away end. With just under a quarter of an hour to go, Old Trafford emptied.
But Liverpool hadn’t finished yet. With the game coming to a close in the 90th minute, Reina punted the ball upfield. Dossena, only on the pitch as a 68th-minute substitute for fellow compatriot Albert Riera, found the legs to chase it. With the ball looping over his shoulder, he met it on the volley and looped it over the despairing Van der Sar. 4-1, and the rout was complete.
With what was left of the Mancunian army holding their heads in their hands, Liverpool players danced on the pitch and the travelling hoards from Merseyside celebrated in total delirium.
Liverpool would move into second place and the title race was back on. They’d crush Aston Villa 5-0 in their next match, eliminating United’s goal-difference advantage. In all they’d win eight out of the remaining nine games, drawing the other 4-4 with Arsenal at Anfield. It wouldn’t be enough though and Liverpool would fall short once more, ending the season without silverware.
It would mark the beginning of the end for Benitez, but happily also for the American bandits who’d conned their way into the club.
As we head into the clash with our old enemy this weekend, Liverpool Football Club is a very different animal than it was in 2009. Let’s hope the renewed sense of belief can overcome United once more.