My normal pre-match bravado wasn’t at full strength after the four-game losing streak (Liverpool’s worst run since the Spring of 1987) and going into the fixture against Manchester United Sunday I was a sleepless bag of frenetic nerves.
We tend to play our best against the strongest opposition (I thought our outing against Chelsea was one of our best performances of the season except for – of course – the two moments that led to their two goals) and Fernando Torres was on the starting team sheet. These thoughts came as desperately needed consolation as did the return of Glen Johnson. But still: this was United. Even if they were on a forty match losing streak and we’d just broken Arsenal’s unbeaten record, I’d still lose sleep the night before fretting over the outcome of this match.
As the first half unfolded I started to feel better. We looked tight. We looked determined. Our attacks were convincing. Our defense looked cohesive.The side that had lost to Sunderland and a beach ball was nowhere in sight.
United looked strong too, though. Van der Sar made some brilliant saves – especially his double stopping of Fabio Aurelio’s delicious free kick and Dirk Kuyt’s rebound. Rooney looked like the man most likely to score on us (and I wouldn’t be able to relax until N’Gog made his mark simply because Wayne Rooney needs only the smallest of chances to break through and turn a match on its head), but Carra and the rest of our defense kept vigilant and when the half-time whistle blew and we still had a clean sheet my confidence that we could win had returned. Lyon, Sunderland, Chelsea, Fiorentina: these seemed distant memories, overshadowed by the task at hand.
No goals yet but it had been a lively, gripping match. Both sides were playing well.
The first twenty minutes of the second half were as riveting. Both sides hacked away at each other. My feeling that the Liverpool goal must come grew steadily. With no Steven Gerrard, the task inevitably fell to Torres. In the 65th minute Yossi (who’d been on fire all match) slotted a perfect ball into space for Torres to gobble up. Rio Ferdinand was quickly on El Nino’s heels, trying to keep up. Dirk Kuyt was unmarked to the left and many of the world’s best players probably would have passed to the Dutchman who had the clearer angle on goal. But Torres smelled his chance. With little room to work and with Ferdinand contemplating a tug, Torres fired the ball upward into the back of the net.
Our pub absolutely exploded. We threw ourselves into the air in one jubilant mass. We screamed. I lost track of where the ground was below me but trusted their were enough bodies around me to keep me upright as the coffee, Guinness and pure joy swirled through my veins. I had one arm around my friend Jamie and one arm around some guy I don’t think I’d seen before. The latter was wearing a plain black shirt and I was quickly relieved when he threw his arm around my shoulder and started jumping and screaming too (I was afraid for a second I’d thrown my arm around a United supporter who might not share my glee just then).
When the initial roar died down, two sections of the room were singing the Torres song. Our section was slightly behind because we hadn’t been able to hear the others start into it. Just before we get to the Na Na Na Na’s, my friend Niall yelled, “Bounce!” And most of the room started jumping up and down again. One almost forgot there was still much football to be watched (and not enough difference in the scoreline to stop fretting away).
Our roar settled down, and we reclaimed our pint glasses and worry, but that buzz of optimism and pride was swelling up in our chests and heads.
But the many remaining minutes (30 of them when we include the 5 min of stoppage time that materialized out of the Merseyside air) would be nervy. There was still Rooney to hold back. And Berbatov – for all the talk of his laziness the guy has an immaculate first touch and can carve himself enough freedom to score or assist with little to no notice. And United kept winning some dangerous set pieces, which hasn’t been our forte on the defensive side of things this season.
One came just outside the box after Jamie Carragher was booked for fouling Michael Owen. The United players crowded the ref, demanding Carra be sent off for being last man. Fergie was out of his seat screaming bloody murder. Carra stayed on, but I was wringing my hands: I’d seen Giggs put one away from a similar area this season.
The kick came to nothing and my friend Jamie started to sing “Don’t You Wish You Had Ronaldo?” to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (good for so many things). A bunch of us joined in. For a moment it was my favorite song ever.
At this point I was filled with mixed feelings. At once I felt certain we had this while being in eternal doubt because after all: IT WAS UNITED.
Then, strangely, Vidic was booked. Not that he didn’t deserve it after his foul on Kuyt. But he was already on a yellow and while I’d joked about Vidic taking the long walk (only because he’d been sent off the last two times we faced United) I didn’t really expect it to happen. What are the odds? Vidic is now three-for-three. It’s almost becoming a tradition. (Fergie would later complain about the officiating and ask if Andre Marriner was too inexperienced for such a big match. Perhaps a more seasoned ref would have spotted Berbatov’s first-half penalty area foul on Dirk Kuyt. Kuyt’s shirt was torn but Berbatov – already on a yellow – remained on the pitch. Somehow, I don’t think Fergie used this example in his complaints, though.)
But before I could get too excited about United being reduced to ten men, Javier Mascherano, also on a yellow – at this point I think everybody including the unused substitutes and were all on yellows – made a needless sliding tackle on van der Sar. Off. Ten against ten. I took some consolation that we only lose Masch for today’s Carling Cup match rather than next weekend’s league fixture.
How often have United dashed hopes in the dying minutes? Countless times last season. Of course Ronaldo was so often at the heart of that and now he was gone (“Don’t You Wish You Had Ronaldo?”). But I still wouldn’t count United out of it – I still couldn’t relax until in the depths of stoppage time – as we all screamed at the nearest television: “BLOW THE FUCKING WHISTLE!!!” – substitute David N’Gog collected a pass with nobody marking him (Vidic would surely have been all over the kid). One-on-one with van der Sar, N’Gog coolly shot it low into the far corner. The Kop exploded. Pepe Reina ran the length of the pitch to pounce on the young Frenchman for securing our victory. Carra, the day’s captain, proudly shot N’Gog a thumbs up, beaming like a father. We couldn’t be undone now. The day was ours. What little voice I had left after the first goal now climbed into the ceiling tiles and we sang and cheered and bounced again.
Both the wins last season over United were peaks in a strong campaign. But this win is my new favorite against our biggest rivals. It came when we needed it most in a run that’s been marked by struggle and disappointment. We put an end to a dire losing streak and we put ourselves back in the title race by securing three points against the Champs. Now, six points behind Chelsea,we can, at least for now, go back to dreaming about title number 19.
Hopefully this match sparks a run of good form. If we’d played like this the last couple of weeks, there would have been no losing streak to discuss. Normally, in a match I start speculating between 60 and 75 minutes (depending on how we’re doing) on which player Rafa will sub off first. Against United on Sunday I couldn’t have told you. All the starters deserved to be on that pitch. Everybody contributed to the result. Everybody chased down those points like their lives depended on the result. Later, I found out Torres played through lingering pain, so his coming off for N’Gog makes perfect sense in retrospect. And now Torres’ goal seems all the more brilliant when I think he wasn’t even at 100% and he pulled that off. Legend.
Liverpool supporters needed this win. It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved this season. But it gives us a serious recharge. It brings the belief and hope back when both were teetering. It shows these players have the right stuff in their tanks, they just need to learn how to call up this mentality every week. Not just against United and Chelsea. Strong outings against Arsenal today and especially against Fulham on Saturday will do a lot to reinforce the statement they made against United Sunday. My pre-match bravado is back to full fitness for the time being.