When the EPL releases the fixture list at the beginning of the season, I always scan through, looking for the big matches. I like to get a feel of the rhythm of the season, when the climaxes may fall, when Liverpool will have the largest obstacles, when I’ll need to take time off from work. Also, it’s important to start planning the excuses early in case a family reunion falls on an important match weekend.
So I’d been anticipating Saturday’s fixture against United since summer. But if you told me then Liverpool would be a mere seven points clear of the top and that this match could be Liverpool’s last chance to bring the title within reach in the final months, I would have slapped you across the face in disbelief. (I would have apologized and gotten you some ice almost immediately, but, c’mon: stand back if you’re going to suggest something outrageous like that!)
A win tomorrow doesn’t mean trophy number nineteen will join the other glories in Liverpool’s cabinet. Though, a win for United will almost certainly mean the title for them. No, a Liverpool win would simply gives supporters the will to keep hoping for a few more weeks. Hoping the Reds can keep winning and that United slip, more than once, somewhere, somehow.
Statistics lend no comfort. Liverpool have not secured a single point at Old Trafford under Rafael Benitez. In recent years, a draw would be deemed a fantastic result when trekking down the road to play United. But tomorrow we need something more if Liverpool hope to fight for anything higher than second place.
For comfort, for courage we can look to the other big matches of the season. In the home match against United, Rafa beat the Red Devils for the first time in his Liverpool career. A 2-1, come-from-behind win. I lost my voice screaming in glee when Javier Mascherano found Ryan Babel in front of goal and Babel’s piercing shot screamed past Van Der Sar, putting Liverpool ahead when they had gone down a goal in the opening minutes.
Liverpool brought Chelsea’s juggernautish, unbeaten home record to a halt with the 0-1 win at Stamford Bridge in October. Xabi Alonso’s goal was enough to secure all the points, but Liverpool’s great passing game and pressure kept Chelsea from any convincing rebuttal. Liverpool supporters would have been happy with a point at the Bridge. Instead they got three. At the time, it felt like a miracle.
Chelsea’s visit to Anfield brought three more points for Liverpool, this time with two late goals from Fernando Torres. Video replay would show Chelsea midfield goliath Frank Lampard should not have been sent off for his “tackle” on Xabi Alonso, but once again, Liverpool’s determined possession and pressure even against the full Blue xi revealed that while they’ve struggled against Stoke and Middlesbrough, they can dominate the best sides in Europe. Liverpool would have won against a full xi. I’m sure of it. It might have been 1-0 or 2-0 but they were always going to win.
Liverpool come into the United match after an unbelievable 5-0 aggregate win against Real Madrid, having scored four goals Tuesday night when the European giants visited Anfield. We must remember, Rafa Benitez has a knack for understanding and breaking down the Spanish sides after his great successes with Valencia, and we cannot expect United to leave so much space for Liverpool attacks. United are the consummate professionals at keeping a rigid defense while mounting serious attacks.
But what the Madrid victory gives Liverpool is a crushing wave on which they could be riding high. If Liverpool can continue the momentum, if the players can pass and attack with the vigor they displayed against Real, they’ll have a serious chance.
Statistically and historically, a win at Old Trafford would be a supreme upset for Liverpool. Spiritually it could be just the prescription to cure the ailments they’ve shown against the middle- and lower-table sides. If they can bag the points at OT tomorrow and translate the success into dominance over the rest of the teams they face in the League, they might have a chance, no matter how slim, to win the title. It will depend on United slipping further, but if Liverpool win tomorrow, they will also show other sides that United can be beaten. They’ll leave the door open for Arsenal, Middlesbrough, Manchester City and others to take a shot at the Champions. And from there, who knows?
I don’t expect Liverpool to win the league. But if they start by defying expectations at Old Trafford tomorrow, I won’t give up on the dream either.