Following my recent post regarding the facts that prove that Rafa’s ‘rant’ (always in inverted commas, as it was nothing of the sort) did not cause Liverpool to blow their chance of the 2008-09 title, it was put to me that people perhaps still go on about it as it was at around this point that the lead in the league switched to Manchester United.
I thought I’d take a look to see if this was the case, and indeed it was – once United took the lead in the championship race in mid-January, they never relinquished it properly (once a full set of weekend fixtures had been played then United were always top, though there were times when Liverpool regained the lead by virtue of playing first).
So what is the timeline of ‘rant-gate’?
The ‘rant’ took place on 9th January 2009. At that point, Liverpool were top with 45 points from 20 games, whilst United were 3rd with 38 points from 18 games. Winning their games in hand would have put the Manchester side only a single point behind the Merseysiders anyway.
I think a lot of the furore surrounding the ‘rant’ was because the match that Liverpool played the next day was drawn, 0-0 away at Stoke. Gerrard hit the post in the last minute of the match, so it could easily have been a win, but two points dropped was the final outcome. Cue tabloid overdrive – “Rafa’s lost it” etc. Had the Reds won that game then it might not have been made into such a big deal.
The following day, United beat Chelsea 3-0 at Old Trafford, putting them five points behind with two matches in hand, and they then also won another home game during the following midweek (1-0 against Wigan). Therefore, within five days of the ‘rant’, Liverpool had only played once, and a tough away game at that, and yet Manchester United had gone from being seven points behind to being two behind with a game in hand thanks to two home wins.
The following weekend United won away at Bolton (1-0) on the Saturday, and Liverpool drew at home to Everton on the Monday (1-1). Ten days after the ‘rant’, and the two teams were now level on points, with Liverpool having played a game more.
The next league matches took place during a midweek (27th and 28th January): United won 5-0 at West Bromwich Albion, and Liverpool drew 1-1 at Wigan. Having played a game more than their fiercest rivals, Liverpool were now two points behind them.
After that small blip, Liverpool went on to win 12 of their last 15 games, but it wasn’t quite enough to reel United in, even allowing for the glorious 4-1 win at Old Trafford.
So it could certainly be argued that the initiative was surrendered around the time of the ‘rant’, but of course it’s impossible to prove cause and effect.
Personally, I think you have to take account of the fixtures that took place during this period.
Liverpool had Stoke away (where few big teams win, and indeed Liverpool have still to win there in the Premier League era), Everton at home (“form-book goes out of the window”, other clichés are available!), and Wigan away (another place where Liverpool don’t win too often, though you could certainly argue perhaps they should be more likely to, so perhaps two points dropped there).
Then look at United – a home match with Chelsea in the final days of Scolari’s reign (still not the easiest of matches, but CFC were clearly in turmoil), Wigan at home (Dave Whelan doesn’t allow his team to try to beat United I don’t think!), Bolton away (not so easy, granted) and West Brom away, the team who finished the season bottom of the league.
So the same outcome in match results for both teams is hugely plausible, ‘rant’ or not.
As with most things in football, it’s fine margins – Gerrard hit the post in the last minute at Stoke, Cahill scored in the 88th minute to snatch a point for Everton, and Wigan scored via an 83rd minute penalty to draw Liverpool’s other match in this period. Any (or maybe all) of these games could easily have been a win. Were any of the teams involved affected by the ‘rant’? It’s hard to believe that this is the case.
Conclusion? It’s unlucky for Rafa that the team had a minor lull (combined with United winning every game) after his ‘rant’, as that made it easier for the tabloids to stick the knife in. All teams lose points, but the timing of a run of three straight draws could definitely have been more favourable for the Spaniard.
Liverpool hit probably the best league run of his whole tenure after this three game period (starting with a 2-0 win over Chelsea at Anfield), averaging an incredible 2.53 points-per-game over the final 15 games of the season, but as with most things surrounding Rafa Benitez, people tend to remember what they want to remember.
I like to remember a manager who took Liverpool very close to winning the league that season. Closer than they have been at any point in the last 21 years. And that’s a fact.
Please take a look at my other articles, a list of which can be found here.