League matches don’t get much bigger for Liverpool than their next one: Manchester United, away. As chance would have it, the meeting happens to fall on the fifth anniversary of the weekend when the Reds returned home along the M62 with all three points following a fabulous 4-1 win at Old Trafford.
Thanks to the home match with Sunderland being postponed, the United away fixture is Liverpool’s twenty-ninth league game of the campaign, just as it was in 2008/09.
Out of curiousity, I decided to see which matches have been the twenty-ninth in the seasons in-between, and it turns out you won’t have forgotten any of them. They have all proved to be significant; some for good reasons, others not so much.
But let’s start with the greatest league result of my time supporting Liverpool…
14th March 2009, Manchester United 1 Liverpool 4.
Before the match, although Liverpool had spanked Real Madrid 4-0 in midweek, the situation facing the Reds was far from ideal. Liverpool were seven points behind their title rivals having played a game more, were without midfield metronome Xabi Alonso (despite what Jamie Redknapp has since claimed), and Sami Hyypia was only drafted into the starting XI after Arbeloa pulled up in the warm up. It turned out to be the legendary Finn’s final start for Liverpool, and like every single player in grey that day, he was superb.
A win looked unlikely when United took the lead from the penalty spot, but goals from Torres, Gerrard, Aurelio and Dossena made it look all too easy, and the title charge was very much back on.
The Reds won nine and drew one of their final ten games, but ultimately it wasn’t quite enough to reel United in. Still, a bright future lay in wait after Liverpool’s best title push in two decades. Right?
8th March 2010, Wigan Athletic 1 Liverpool 0.
What a difference a year makes. From going to Old Trafford to duke out the title, to travelling to relegation threatened Wigan in a bid to stay in the race for fourth place.
“Reds sink to new depths with another abysmal away showing” was the headline in the Echo, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Liverpool’s ageing team (with an average age of 27.7, they were older than every Premier League team has been on average this season) mustered six bookings but no shots on target, and were deservedly beaten. Since the start of 2008/09, Liverpool have played 218 league games, and this is the only one where they failed to test the opposition goalkeeper at least once.
We weren’t to know how the next six months would pan out, but it felt clear that perhaps things were slipping away from Rafa Benitez, and Liverpool only won four of the Spaniard’s final ten league games in charge.
6th March 2011, Liverpool 3 Manchester United 1.
That’s better. The twelve months since the aforementioned Wigan match had been very traumatic indeed. Hicks, Gillett, Benitez, Purslow, Broughton, RBS, Grabiner and Hodgson had all been and gone and left an indelible imprint upon our beloved club in all manner of mostly negative ways.
New signing Luis Suárez was making only his third start for the club, and turned in a quite mesmeric performance. Dirk Kuyt might have scored all three of the Reds’ goals, but there was little doubt who the star of the show actually was.
Caretaker manager Kenny Dalglish was making himself at home too, and even received a ‘happy birthday’ chant from a delirious Kop. United might have gone on to win the title that season, but this display showed that Liverpool weren’t entirely done for just yet, and it would’ve taken a very brave new owner not to give Dalglish the job on a full time basis. Six wins in the last ten games of the season (only one shy of the seven that the previous incumbent posted in his twenty miserable games) ensured that the King came home permanently.
21st March 2012, Queens Park Rangers 3 Liverpool 2.
And so the Red pendulum swings backwards once again. Liverpool had won the Carling Cup, their first trophy for six years, and whilst the challenge for fourth place had faded, they had beaten their Merseyside rivals Everton 3-0 in their previous league match and then a secured an FA Cup semi final berth in their last game, against Stoke.
After Sebastian Coates had scored a scissor kick with his only ever Premier League shot, and Dirk Kuyt had doubled the advantage, there only looked one winner.
Yet Liverpool completely capitulated and allowed the Hoops to score three times in the final quarter of an hour, becoming in the process only the third team in the Premier League era to win a match when two goals behind in the final fifteen minutes.
This match started a run of six defeats in the Reds’ final ten league matches that season, a seemingly irreversible downward spiral which resulted in Dalglish being relieved of his position. Replacing the King? No pressure on the next guy, eh?
10th March 2013, Liverpool 3 Tottenham Hotspur 2.
Brendan Rodgers did not have it easy in his debut campaign at Anfield. A largely unproven top flight manager, he had to deal with replacing the club’s greatest living legend whilst a US television company stuck a camera in his face twenty-four seven. Prior to the final ten games of the season, Liverpool had spent the majority of their time in the bottom half of the table, and the Reds had yet to beat any of the seven teams that would finish above them that season, having had eleven attempts at doing so.
Until Tottenham Hotspur rolled into town for game twenty-nine, that is.
But they displayed resilience and a will to win that had often been lacking in the preceding few years, and turned it round to win 3-2. It wouldn’t have entirely convinced the anti-Rodgers brigade that he was right for Liverpool, but it was an important win to get on the board. The Reds won five of their last ten games, losing only once, and whether you believe in momentum or not, it gave the team a platform to build on for 2013/14.
16th March 2014, Manchester United vs Liverpool ???
You’ve probably noticed by now that the results have alternated between good and bad, and if the sequence continues then Liverpool will not get a win at Old Trafford next weekend.
But whatever the result, I’m confident that it won’t affect the Reds’ campaign significantly. Unlike years past when setbacks at this stage have seen seasons fizzle out, I believe that Liverpool are now destined for a top four finish at the very least regardless. If Rodgers secures a top three finish (and so automatic entry to the Champions League group stage) then in my opinion it will be the finest league performance by a Liverpool team and manager in the Premier League era.
Other Liverpool teams may have secured more points or higher finishes than third, but not from a starting point of seventh in an era when there are so many teams competing at the top end. So a win in game twenty-nine could prove very significant indeed, and give Liverpool the impetus to kick on in the final quarter of the season.