Though the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham fans might disagree, the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United is one of the oldest and most bitter in world football. The hatred the two sets of fans feel towards each other goes a lot deeper than just through sport, with prior economic and trade disagreements lighting a fire that football merely fanned the flames of.
On Monday Manchester United head to Anfield at a time when it feels like the two clubs could be swapping positions once more. In the 1970s and 1980s Liverpool were the dominant force in English football. Through the 1990s and the early 2000s the Red Devils overtook them under the management of Alex Ferguson. Since old whiskeynose left his post, however, United have struggled to find consistency and the Reds have begun to look like a genuine force.
Here I’ll whet your appetite for the upcoming Monday Night Football game by having a look back at four standout fixtures between the two sides. I’m going to choose from matches at both Anfield and Old Trafford and I’m also going to limit it to games from the last twenty years. I’m sure there were some ding-dong battles in the ‘70s and ‘80s but I have no knowledge of them so I’m not going to pretend otherwise. As a Liverpool supporter there’s really only one obvious place to start…
Manchester United 1 – Liverpool 4
Saturday the 14h of March 2009. Liverpool were chasing Manchester United at the top of the table. The Red Devils were seven points clear with a game in hand and the Reds had just ten games left of the season. It certainly appeared as if this was going to be another campaign of disappointment. There was hope that a miracle could happen, though, with Real Madrid having been tonked 4-0 in a Champions League game during the week.
Any optimism that Liverpool fans might have been feeling evaporated after 23 minutes, however, when Pepe Reina appeared to foul Ji-Sung Park and Cristiano Ronaldo duly dispatched the spot-kick. Remarkably no heads went in the Liverpool side, with Rafa Benitez confident in his plan to get the better of his opposite number.
Nemanja Vidic, who it’s important to remember was considered to be one of the best defenders in the league at the time, had a torrid afternoon up against a Fernando Torres who was in the form of his life. United’s lead lasted just five minutes before the Spaniard forced a mistake out of the Serbian and then slotted the ball past Edwin van der Sar. Game on.
Our old friend Patrice Evra fouled Steven Gerrard just before the break and the captain gave Liverpool the lead from the penalty spot before doing his now famous celebration of running over and kissing the Sky camera. United fans must have been hoping that Ferguson would sort his team out and they would respond after the break, but no such luck was forthcoming.
Instead it was Liverpool who were the better team after the break. Vidic was having a terrible afternoon but he didn’t need to worry about it too much – Alan Wiley sent him off after 76 minutes for a foul on Gerrard. Fabio Aurelio scored the free-kick from fully-25 yards out. Game over.
Only it wasn’t game over, of course. Andrea Dossena, who may not be remembered for much else during his Liverpool career, took an opportunity to rub salt into the wound when he scored a stunning lob over van der Sar to condemn United to their worst home defeat since 1992.
In the end it proved to be a fruitless result for the Reds, sadly. Despite Benitez essentially telling the rest of the league how to go about beating United, only Fulham managed it in their next game before Ferguson’s side went on to win eight of their remaining ten fixtures. For a moment though, Liverpool fans were allowed to dream. It seemed as though the impossible might just have become possible. It wasn’t to be, but to have schooled United in their own backyard was something most Reds will never forget.
Liverpool 2 – Manchester United 0
Liverpool’s march to the Europa League final last year was one full of twists, turns and exceptional performances. In the future it will only be remembered for the incredible 4-3 win over Borussia Dortmund that saw Anfield once again come alive on a European night; yet there was actually a much more impressive and dominating performance produced in the previous round.
Having made it through the last-sixteen of the Europa League there can be no hiding the fact that it was a disappointment to draw Manchester United from the hat. That felt like the sort of fixture that should have been the final of the Champions League, not an early round of Europe’s second-tier competition.
Only Alex Ferguson has control over fixtures, however, so the tie had to take place as it was drawn. United came to Anfield under Louis van Gaal believing that they could get something out of the match, but to describe their performance as shambolic would be an understatement. They didn’t manage to register a shot on target, instead having to defend eight of those from Liverpool.
It always says something about a team’s performance when the goalkeeper finishes the game as the Man Of The Match and David de Gea could have been given the award twice after the full-time whistle, such was the extent that he kept his side in the tie. Liverpool were genuinely sensational, cutting United’s defence to ribbons and asking questions of the Spaniard between the sticks time and time again.
Unfortunately for us he had the answers more often than not. Just as well for United, though, as otherwise Liverpool may have notched up and even more impressive scoreline than the one they had managed at Old Trafford seven years before. A Memphis Depay foul on Nathaniel Clyne saw the Reds get awarded a penalty after twenty minutes that Daniel Sturridge scored with ease. But still de Gea refused to roll over, making save after save to keep us at bay.
He could do nothing about Roberto Firmino’s shot seventeen minutes from time, however, and the 2-0 scoreline flattered Manchester United in the extreme. It’s a different side that will be arriving at Anfield on Monday night with a different, more defensively-minded manager in the dugout. The high press we witnessed in March was the reason for the Reds’ win, though, so we have to hope that they’ll struggle to cope now just as much as they did seven months ago.
Manchester United 1 – Liverpool 0
To the victor go the spoils, as the saying goes. A retrospective look at the 1996 FA Cup final will tell you that Manchester United knew they were going to lift the trophy as soon as they saw the Liverpool team parading around the Wembley pitch in cream suits before kick-off. The decision to wear the outfits, given to them because of a relationship that David James had with Emporio Armani, was a poor one with hindsight. If the Reds had won the game, though, would it still be looked back on with such disdain?
The story of the final nowadays is that the suits summed up Liverpool’s approach to the match: Too busy trying to look cool and stylish to prepare for the game at hand. United, in contract, were studies in focus and concentration. The Red Devils then went out and battered us for 90 minutes, with the Reds lucky to make it off the pitch with just a 1-0 loss to our name.
Only that’s not what really happened.
The wearing of the suits was the catalyst for the notion drummed up by the press that Liverpool’s team were ‘The Spice Boys’; filled with party animals who liked to be seen out on the town having a drink. Jamie Redknapp was pilloried for being more interested in having sex with a pop star than winning things for his team. Of course it’s now twenty years later and Jamie and Louise Nurding are still happily married, so perhaps we can put that idea to bed once and for all.
The game itself was actually rather boring. The two teams had tactical plans to cancel out each other’s strengths, with Redknapp and John Barnes nullifying the threat of United’s playmaker Eric Cantona and Nicky Butt and Roy Keane doing the same thing to Liverpool’s Steve Mcmanaman. Though the match started at a fast pace it soon drizzled out and there was little for either goalkeeper to do.
The winning goal is something modern-day Liverpool fans might be interested to hear about. It all came from a corner in the 85th minute. David James attempted to punch the ball clear but failed, instead knocking it straight to the feet of Cantona just outside the area. The Frenchman hit a weak, speculative effort towards goal that somehow managed to avoid all players and nestle in the back of the net. Even twenty years ago, then, our goalkeepers didn’t know how to deal with crosses. Something worth bearing in mind on Monday when footballing ‘genius’ José Mourinho plays all of his tall players and resorts to going long for ninety minutes.
It’s easy to look back on matches such as this and dress them up however you want in hindsight. United players claim it was all down to the suits, but anyone who remembers the game knows that isn’t true. It was an ill-judged decision but let’s not pretend that the fate of the match was decided by it. The result was the toss of a coin and anyone who tells you otherwise is a flat-out liar.
Manchester United 0 – Liverpool 3
A Liverpool team full of attacking swagger and confidence but let down by its defence believing that it can win the Premier League for the first time goes up against Manchester United. I could easily be writing about this weekend’s fixture here, but I’m not. Instead I’m referring to our trip to Old Trafford back in 2014, when Brendan Rodgers’ Reds destroyed David Moyes’ team in their home ground.
Twelve months before, in Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge of United, the Red Devils were twenty-nine points clear of Liverpool. Thankfully the Scot retired and his final wish was to appoint the Everton boss as manager. Confirmation, as far as I was concerned, that he has always cared more about his own reputation than he has about the success of Manchester United.
The game in 2014 was seen as a genuine test of our title-winning credentials, much as Monday night’s game is likely to be. This time, sadly, we’re not up against the shambolic Moyes side that we beat so comfortably back then. Much like in the Europa League tie last season, the scoreline flattered United. We were much the better team, carving them open time after time on our way to a resounding win.
Rodgers’ Reds had seven shots on target to United’s one, again forcing a Man Of The Match performance out of David de Gea. He couldn’t stop Steven Gerrard’s penalty after 34 minutes, though, nor could he stop his next one after the interval. The captain actually missed a third, in what some suggested was an attempt to ensure Moyes kept his job. As with most things that season it was Luis Suarez who had the final word, beating de Gea with just over five minutes of normal time remaining to complete the rout.
In 2014, as with 2009, our victory over United proved to be worthless in the end. Could this be the year that we do the double over our old enemies and finally claim the ultimate prize? It remains to be seen, of course, but we have to feel that we’re the better team on form heading into Monday night. Now to make it count…