If Manchester United quickly exacted revenge of a sort for that humiliating 4-1 home defeat to Liverpool last March by recovering to equal their rivals' record of 18 League titles, victory at Anfield this afternoon would be not so much a dish served cold as a slap-up meal paid for by Rafael Benitez. There would even be the bonus of an added number of disgruntled Merseysiders calling for it to be the Spaniard's last supper.
Assuming Benitez survives until the end of the season – and as was pointed out last week, it would cost the hard-pressed American owners up to £20m to pay him off – he will have been at the club for as long as any manager since Bob Paisley retired in 1983 with six League titles and three European Cups to his name. Whether or not Paisley's successors can realistically be judged by those standards, Benitez's reign is already a difficult one to assess, either highlighted or distorted according to point of view by victories on penalties in the Champions' League and FA Cup finals when the games seemed lost, but increasingly undermined by both his transfer record and a failure to challenge for the Premier League any more strongly than last season's ultimately unsuccessful effort.
More than a match for United over two games – they also beat them at Anfield early on – Liverpool again could not catch them over 38, and Benitez finished below Sir Alex Ferguson in the table once more, as he has done every year since arriving from Valencia. It is the Manchester club who remain the elephant in the Anfield trophy room, in a position this afternoon effectively to ensure that the Premier League title does not take up residence there for at least another year, as well as to inflict Liverpool's fifth successive defeat for the first time since the relegation season of 1953-54.
Desperate days, and yet the least that can be expected is united defiance in the face of United's intentions. In fact, the Anfield DJ, a proud supporter of local bands, could do worse than pick up on a theme of Jamie Carragher's and precede 'You'll Never Walk Alone' today with the Beatles' 'Come Together'. Carragher is hurting worse than anyone at present and assuming that his Scouse mate Steven Gerrard cannot be risked again, he is likely to be the only local lad in Liverpool red this afternoon. So it has fallen to Carragher to call on community spirit as the way out of the mess of whoever's making.
"We'll definitely need the crowd's help," he said. "They're not stupid, they've seen Liverpool teams before going through bad runs and we all need to stick together. There'll be a lot of stick flying round as there always is when Liverpool aren't doing well so we've just got to come together and try to get three points.
"No one will be expecting much of us. We'll be written off before the game, which is normal, and it's up to us to show the character and fight. We're Liverpool and we've got to go for it. We've shown fighting spirit over the years and we've got to show it now. We know we're on a poor run at the moment and there's only us can change it. A lot of people, fans and press, will talk about different things but it's 11 of us out on the pitch who can change it and it's up to us to sort it out."
If there is compensation for him amid the current travails, which he puts down to a sudden lack of confidence, it is that he can recall a number of other poor starts to the season, including the two that have ended with a Champions' League final against Milan. "It's a long season and we've still got things to go for. I know we'll be getting written off but I remember the treble season [2000-01]; we did not start that very well. In 2005 we had a terrible season in the League but everyone remembers it for the Champions' League. And in 2007 too – it sounds like every season we started badly! – we started very poorly and ended up in the Champions' League final. It's at the end of the season when the judgment is made. It's like being down at half-time in a game, you've got to keep fighting and that's what we'll do."
Like being 3-0 down to Milan at half-time, perhaps, and somehow picking up a winner's medal. Admittedly, Anfield is wondering where the next goal might come from. Yossi Benayoun's in last Tuesday's defeat by Lyon was the only one in four games and Liverpool without both Fernando Torres and Gerrard tend unwittingly to strengthen the argument that the depth of the squad is inadequate.
On Friday, Benitez again claimed that they have won matches without that pair, including the 2-1 victory over United last September (though Gerrard was on as a substitute by the time of the winning goal). The manager's intention, however, once he was over the Lyon defeat after "two or three hours", was to keep the squad upbeat and he insists there has been a good response: "The message was very positive and the reaction of the players was really good. We will do the normal things, the team talk before the game, analysing what we have to do to win, and maybe the motivation will be easier for me because it's United, so the fans will be behind the team and on top of them. We just have to concentrate on technical and tactical things."
Self-belief, even if it has briefly wavered among the players in this poor run, isn't a problem for the manager: "You can't say you will be right always but 25 years means we have some experience. I still have a lot of confidence. If you lose your confidence, you cannot keep your players working and believing. The main thing for a manager is to have strong ideas and keep working. Why have strong ideas? Because you have more experience and have been in different situations and you have to keep going."
Challenged on the success, or otherwise, of a number of his signings, Benitez quotes statistics. "Players [costing] more than £7 million, we have 80 per cent success and below this figure we have to take some gambles. When you don't have too much money, you have to take some gambles and some players were really good."
Today, given the opposition and importance of the occasion, there is every likelihood of Anfield uniting as Carragher wants, at least once a pre-match protest against the owners is out of the way. Then they can turn their ire on United, on Michael Owen perhaps, and Ferguson, of whom Benitez says: "Before, it was OK and now? Not too much. In my first games with Liverpool against United we had some chats, talking about football. Everything was OK, no problem. Now I think something is different."
What remains the same is that it is Ferguson who keeps holding that Premier League trophy at the end of the season. Having publicly wondered if Liverpool had peaked with last season's 86 points, United's manager can afford the rare luxury of confronting them amid a run of defeats, and not worrying, he says, about whether that will provide extra motivation in itself: "It could work in their favour, of course. I don't see that as an obstacle for me. I've got to look at my own team and think whether we get to our level of expectation. We have to play our own game and express ourselves."
Even if Wayne Rooney is another of the match's absent friends, Ferguson believes that in Dimitar Berbatov he has a player to compensate, going so far as to offer comparison with a modern United legend. "I'm pleased with Berbatov's form and I think he has responded to playing all the time. He's got the touch and the vision. He has the composure too, to take his time in the last third of the field whereas other players may hurry. He's like [Eric] Cantona in that respect. Cantona's great asset was that he would make a goal or score a goal at important times in a game. He was a great asset at that but also he was the best passer of the simple 10-yard pass. It looked great but it was a simple one."
The simple things rather than the expressive ones might well be safest for both sides today. What is clear is on which of them sheer desperation weighs heaviest.
Last five Liverpool wins
14 March 2009: Manchester United 1 Liverpool 4
Fine counter-attacking allowed Liverpool to inflict their rivals' heaviest home defeat for 17 years after falling behind to Cristiano Ronaldo's goal. Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard (penalty) both scored but Javier Mascherano was their key man.
13 September 2008: Liverpool 2 Manchester United 1
Mascherano was also outstanding here as Rafa Benitez achieved a League win over United at the eighth attempt even with Torres absent and Gerrard only on for 23 minutes. Nemanja Vidic was sent off, as he would be in the return. Ryan Babel got the winner.
18 February 2006: Liverpool 1 Manchester United 0
Not since 1921 had they beaten United in the FA Cup but Peter Crouch's header against a defence missing Rio Ferdinand won this fifth-round tie. Alan Smith was taunted after suffering a broken leg; Liverpool would win the Cup.
24 April 2004: Manchester United 0 Liverpool 1
Two bald men fighting over a comb as unbeaten Arsenal topped the table with Chelsea runners-up. Danny Murphy continued his habit of scoring winning goals at Old Trafford with a penalty after Gary Neville fouled Gerrard.
2 March 2003: Liverpool 2 Manchester United 0
Jerzy Dudek, whose mistake had given United victory in the League earlier that season, thwarted United in this Worthington Cup final in between goals by Gerrard and someone called Michael Owen.
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