It was the question on most football minds when a new day dawned yesterday and Liverpool's players awoke, pinched themselves and realised their first-half blitzkrieg really had seen off one of the great European sides 4-0. What kind of complexion would the Premier League take if only Liverpool had managed that kind of performance domestically?
The league title, Ryan Babel reflected in the aftermath of delivering Real Madrid's heaviest Champions League defeat, had been all but "given away" by Liverpool, the implication being that Manchester United's seven-point supremacy at the summit is about their challengers' failings rather than the champions' own performances.
Some would agree. The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, pointed out last week that he did not feel that "performance-wise there was a gap between United and the rest this year, only that they managed to win 1-0 when other teams draw". There is no better way of Liverpool demonstrating that than by adding to their 2-1 defeat of United at Anfield and taking all three points when the sides meet at Old Trafford this Saturday.
"Maybe things can change and we can win," Babel said, though his prognosis was not hugely positive. "We've made a lot of mistakes and we've almost given the title away." Neither was Dirk Kuyt's. "Even if we win, the gap will be big, so it's up to us to win our home games and hope they have some difficulties."
But the manner of Liverpool's demolition of Real has sent a declaration of intent to Sir Alex Ferguson and taught Liverpool the rewards of starting a game with enough intensity to score early on, something they have too often been incapable of this season.
Before Tuesday night's early assault, Liverpool had failed to score in the first 40 minutes for 11 consecutive games. Their manager, Rafa Benitez, has been talking for weeks about the importance of rectifying this and his instructions on Wednesday night – "go for the first 20 minutes on top of them and see what happens," as Babel described it – translated into that extraordinarily high intensity level when the game began.
Babel believes that approach can be replicated at Old Trafford, despite Liverpool's maddening ability to follow up their win in the Bernabeu with defeat at the Riverside. "Yes, there is new belief we can beat them and it gives us a buzz to go to Old Trafford with the same preparation," he said.
From 12.45pm on Saturday, we will also know a little more about whether Benitez's rant at Ferguson in January will come back to bite him. The latest "Rafa's cracking up" chants sounded from the Anfield Road end were imbued with irony on Tuesday night, but for those who feel that the Liverpool manager only heaped more pressure on his players with his dissection of the United manager, there was evidence yesterday about how his players can benefit from a sense of injustice.
Fabio Aurelio revealed in the aftermath of the 5-0 aggregate win that Liverpool's incentive to beat the Spaniards had been magnified by Real's suggestions that Liverpool were an overly defensive European outfit.
"It's a great result, especially after what they were saying before the two games," Aurelio said. "When we played there they were saying we were too defensive and we don't want to play football, but you could see that Liverpool played much better than them and didn't give them any opportunity." Did what the Spanish cognoscenti say help Liverpool? "Yes, we know we're not a defensive team."
The win provided Benitez, against the side he served for 16 years, with more self-satisfaction than he has let on, Aurelio believes. "He came from Madrid so it's a good opportunity for him to show he has grown a lot as a manager." A win on Saturday will only amplify that and, though Babel is realistic enough to be contemplating the prospect of defeat, he believes that Tuesday night's display will help.
Euro thrash: Handing out a Champion beating
Bayern Munich's 7-1 win over Sporting on Tuesday equalled the record for a Champions League knockout game, evoking other recent mismatches:
Liverpool 8 Besiktas 0 6 Nov 2007, group stage
A game Liverpool had to win; Peter Crouch opened the floodgates for a Yossi Benayoun hat-trick. Four more goals followed, including a Ryan Babel back-heel for the sixth.
Man United 7 Roma 1 10 Apr 2007, quarter-final second leg
Two-one down from the first leg, United were three up after 19 minutes. An Alan Smith goal preceded two goals each from Michael Carrick and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Arsenal 7 Slavia Prague 0 23 Oct 2007, group stage
Arsenal started the season in blistering form and this Czech-battering was their 12th win on the bounce. Theo Walcott marked his first European start with two goals.
Monaco 8 Deportivo 3 5 Nov 2003, group stage
Monaco's Dado Prso struck four times on a night of madness, resulting in an 11-goal Champions League record. Yet these teams reached the semi-finals.
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