For the latest edition of Classic Matches writer Greg Lea looks back at the 4-1 Manchester Utd defeat to Liverpool in the 2008/2009 season.
They face off again this weekend in the Premier League…
The ball bounced up kindly off the Old Trafford turf, begging to be hit. Andrea Dossena was on hand to oblige, lofting a delicate lob over the head of Edwin van der Sar and sending the away end into raptures.
Many of those same supporters would have awoken on the morning of Saturday 14 March fearing the worst. Three consecutive draws with Stoke City, Everton and Wigan Athletic in January, followed by more dropped points against Manchester City and Middlesbrough the following month, had severely dented the Reds’ Premier League title hopes, with seven points separating them from rivals United – who also had a game in hand – at the summit of the standings.
Defeat at Old Trafford, then, would not only induce the negative emotions typically associated with losing to your fiercest adversaries, but also bring an end to Rafael Benitez’s men’s chances of finishing on top of the pile at the campaign’s end. Many believed their hopes had already expired; “if only Liverpool had kept their game-faces on since the turn of the year, we’d have the mother of all title races on our hands,” the Guardian’s Scott Murray wrote prior to kick-off. “As it is, this is about little more than local bragging rights.”
The fact that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were at this stage just one championship away from matching the Merseysiders’ record haul of 18 league titles only added to the feeling of trepidation among those of a Liverpool persuasion, and things would get worse before they got better. With 22 minutes on the clock, Carlos Tevez threaded a perfectly weighted through-ball into the path of Park Ji-sung, whose movement in behind the Liverpool backline clearly alarmed Pepe Reina. The goalkeeper rushed out to try and deny the South Korean but instead clumsily clipped him with his arm, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo the opportunity to open the scoring from the spot. He didn’t turn it down.
The visitors spent the next five minutes hanging on as their hosts went in search of a second, but the game’s next goal erased the deficit rather than doubling it. Martin Skrtel’s decision to put his foot through the ball was simply the result of his desire to give the Liverpool defence a chance to draw its collective breath, but Nemanja Vidic’s inexplicable failure to head the clearance away proved disastrous. Fernando Torres ate up the yards on the Serb and beat him to the loose ball, before calmly slotting it past Van der Sar and into the far corner of the net.
Vidic looked extremely shaky in the minutes that followed, but the Red Devils rediscovered their composure as half-time approached. It was their opponents who grabbed the potentially pivotal third goal, though, Gerrard picking himself up and converting the penalty after he was felled by Patrice Evra. The Liverpool captain planted a smacker on the lens of a nearby television camera in celebration; Benitez, true to character, scribbled something in his notepad.
While United saw most of the ball at the start of the second period, they struggled to do very much with it. The closest they came to an equaliser was when Tevez slid his shot wide after a neat piece of chest control from Michael Carrick’s chipped pass, but Liverpool’s speed on the counter-attack gave the home side plenty to think about at the other end of the field.
Pace was indeed key to their next effort in the 78th minute, Gerrard racing away from Vidic and forcing the centre-half to haul him to the ground, which duly led to a red card and a free-kick in a promising position. Fabio Aurelio, pouring salt into United wounds as he went, brilliantly bent the ball into the top corner.
And then it was Dossena’s turn. Rio Ferdinand, replicating his now absent defensive partner by misjudging a long kick, allowed the substitute to sneak in and apply the finishing touch – as well as the cherry to the icing on the cake.
Almost eight years on, United supporters will look back at this result and shrug; after all, it was they who were celebrating a title triumph by the time May rolled around. But notwithstanding the season’s eventual outcome, Liverpool fans will never forget the day they sealed a 4-1 victory at Old Trafford with a lob from a future Leyton Orient left-back.
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