4.) Manchester United 1-4 Liverpool – 14 March 2009
Even after the mind-shattering come-from-behind win on 13 September (see Part 3), I couldn’t let myself feel too optimistic about the trip to Old Trafford. (Going into the biggest matches, I try to remain spiritually pragmatic.) 1-1 at O.T. would be a wonderful result. Another 2-1 Liverpool win would be legendary. Even if we were up 2-1 and United found one of their last-gasp injury-time scorchers (not that Liverpool hadn’t had their fair share of late miracles last season) and the match ended 2-2, I promised myself I ‘d be content with that result. Yes—if Liverpool could score two at O.T. (hey, Stevie G and El Nino were back… why not?) a draw would still make me happy enough.
But then, Park’s run spilled into the left side of the box. Pepe misjudged the danger and rushed out to contain the Korean international. Park tumbled. Pepe cursed himself. The ref gave the penalty.
I was fuming, convinced Park dived. (And this is why I should never be professionally commenting live if Liverpool are involved. Every call against Liverpool would be outrageous. Even if Steven Gerrard slammed his studs into a defender’s head while offsides, while diving, while giving the ref the v-sign, while bragging he’d slept with the ref’s wife, while taking his shirt off to celebrate… when he got sent off, I would still shake my fists and scream: “HEY! THAT’S NEVER A BOOKING!!! So… I don’t always see clearly in the nucleus of the moment. Thank God for replays. I’m often forced to concede: “Oh, okay. Right call. Sorry. Carry on.”)
So Park was fouled. And of course Ronaldo stepped to the spot. And of course he converted. And of course my heart sunk to the heels of my Adidas.
We were down a goal again. (At least it was 23 min in rather than 3 min in—or maybe that’s worse—there’s less time to recover.) Only this time it was at Old Trafford. It felt like being three down.
Oh well, I thought. We already beat them once this season. That’s progress in the Rafa era.
But five minutes later, it’s Vidic letting the ball bounce (his first mistake of the day). Then it’s Torres bringing his foot around Vidic’s midriff, slapping the ball into space. Then it’s Vidic losing his balance—tumbling. Torres peels after the ball—he’s one-on-one with Edwin van der Startled—Torres waits for his moment—he waits—he moves—he strikes—the shot careens toward the far post—the bounce—and—it’s—IN!!!!
Then, as half-time nears, it’s Stevie rounding Evra. Evra doesn’t see him until Stevie’s pulling ahead. Stevie gets a touch on the ball just as Evra goes to ground. Evra’s leg sweeps Stevie’s feet. The whistle blows. Evra—like Reina, a consumate professional— can’t believe he’s made such a mistake under pressure.
Stevie steps to the spot and blasts it to the right. And we’re up a goal… The moment hangs in my mind like Gerrard’s saliva clinging to the television screen (he’d kissed the corner flag camera to celebrate).
The scoreline could have remained 1-2. I would have been ecstatic. But in the 75th minute, Lucas finds Kuyt with a long ball. Kuyt tries to put it through for Gerrard. It ricochets off Vidic but Stevie gets ahold of it anyway. He’s a touch, a turn from being one-on-one with van der Sar. Vidic knows it. He grabs Gerrard by the crotch and pulls him down. Twist and cough, mate. The ref is not happy with the impromtu cup-check and Vidic gets the red card.
Fabio Aurelio kicks the ball over the wall and in. Liverpool are up by two.
Now, I’m about to go against my own criteria a little. I’ve said a classic should be a close match. Ideally with a late winner. So a 1-4 scoreline poses some problems compared with the 2-3s and the 2-1 I’ve already discussed in this cycle of articles.
But a two goal cushion (Liverpool wouldn’t score the fourth until injury time) doesn’t feel like much of a gap against United at Old Trafford. Even if they are down to ten men. They are still United. They still had Ronaldo. A man who can create a chance out of nothing in no time at all. So the minutes after Aurelio’s goal felt as tense as any 2-2 match I’ve seen. One goal at any time and they are back in it. At least to fight for a point.
Then, ten seconds into stoppage time, Pepe Reina’s long kick finds substitute Andres Dossena who lets it bounce once before hitting a side-foot-volley-lob over van der Sar’s head and in. We did it!!!! (And I’d like to add: I love seeing the substitute score. Dossena, Babel and Torres have all scored off the bench in these matches. Not a strict criterion for a classic, but definitely a worthwhile consideration.)
Emotionally, this was my favorite match of the season. The City game was more of a well rounded classic. The United match at Anfield was a better performance and a more suspenseful outing. The visit to Portsmouth was simply as strange as it was satisfying. But scoring 4 goals at Old Trafford, coming from behind again and having such a variety of goals (the one-on-one, the penalty, the one-of-the-sexiest-free-kicks-I’ve-ever-seen, and the long service to half-volley-side-foot-lob-shot) and the opponents getting an ejection… I just can’t imagine more thrills.
So those are my biased nominations for Football Classic from 08/09. I’d love to hear what others think and what matches you’d pick. Let me know in the comment section.