It is a measure of Liverpool’s recent progress that the closest shot at a Premier League title under Rafael Benítez doesn’t feel that close any more.
I started supporting Liverpool as a child during the barren years of the 1990s, and while Gérard Houllier’s subsequent era was trophy-laden in comparison, the triumphs felt almost demure next to those of the country’s two best teams: Manchester United and Arsenal. While we celebrated, it felt like we were looked on with pity by our rivals, like our accomplishments would only make their footnotes.
Enter Benítez in 2004, and everything changes. He won the Champions League in his first season. An FA Cup followed, so did another Champions League final. Finally we were being looked at with genuine admiration, even envy. It was the first time in my life a Liverpool team had the makings of champions, fuelled by the boundless naivety of being a teenager, and they reached their apotheosis in 2008-09. Pepe Reina was the reliable goalkeeper we’d been yearning for for a generation, Sami Hyypiä and Jamie Carragher were imperious, in midfield the brain of Xabi Alonso dovetailed with the brawn of Javier Mascherano. Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres had an almost telepathic connection up top.
Benítez’s men arrived at Old Trafford on 14 March 2009 joint second but trailing Alex Ferguson’s side by seven points. We came into the game fresh from hammering Real Madrid 4-0 to face a legendary United team: Edwin van der Sar; Nemanja Vidic; Rio Ferdinand; Ryan Giggs; Carlos Tevez; Wayne Rooney; Cristiano Ronaldo. A team that had conceded just five goals in 13 home league matches. At a ground where Liverpool hadn’t tasted victory in almost five years (and hadn’t scored in the last three).
A tentative opening quarter was brought to life when Reina felled Park Ji-sung. Ronaldo converted the penalty to deliver another ill omen for Benítez; in six years after Ronaldo arrived in Manchester, United had never lost a home game in which he scored.
Their lead lasted five minutes.
Martin Skrtel sent a hopeful punt downfield that was horribly misjudged by Vidic. Torres was on to him in a flash, snatched the ball, and clipped it deftly over the legs of the oncoming Van der Sar. El Niño taunted United fans with a five-fingered celebration (a reference to our European Cup successes that was mimicked with delightful impertinence by Harry Wilson while on loan at Derby last season).
With the game approaching half-time, Gerrard raced on to a ball from Torres, and was brought down inside the box by Patrice Evra. Up he stepped to plant the ball in to the net, and then a kiss on to the camera. 2-1. Delicious.
United started the second half on fire, laying siege to our penalty area, and with just over 15 minutes remaining Ferguson rolled the dice with a triple substitution. But after 75 minutes it was game over. Vidic, already being given the runaround by Torres, hauled down Gerrard after being dispossessed and was shown a second yellow card (his second of four sending offs against Liverpool). The resulting free-kick was curled in with such breathtaking beauty by Fábio Aurélio even Van der Sar just stood there, admiring.
Liverpool fans’ euphoria was soon to reach an even higher level. Another long ball caught out United’s defence and when Andrea Dossena, one of a long line of mediocre left-backs consigned to the at-least-he’s-not-Paul-Konchesky bracket, starts lobbing world class goalkeepers from outside the box you know you’re dealing with narratives of the divine.
Benítez never won the Premier League, and Alonso’s departure that summer sparked a rapid curdling of his team, which finished seventh the following season. But on a gloriously sunny March afternoon, Liverpool stepped up and above their greatest rivals and humiliated them at their own gaff. And it was beautiful.