18 and we are still counting, are you?

On 16th May ’09 Manchester United were crowned champions of Premier League completing a second hat-trick of titles in the process. The ‘fact’ that it was also their eighteenth title made it all the more satisfying, as it tied them with Liverpool for the most number of titles won in English football. For me, though, it was one of the sweetest titles for other reasons as well.

Premier League: Manchester United Champions 2009This was Manchester United’s eleventh title in the Premier League era, eleven more than Liverpool, but only the first with Liverpool as runner-ups. In the past, Liverpool’s title challenges always ended too early and the true intensity of the history of rivalry between these two clubs had not been realized for a long time. Ever since the Premier League became a worldwide phenomenon, it was always Arsenal and Man United, and of late Chelsea, who were battling it out for the title. The Ferguson-Wenger battles gave an impression that United’s rivalry with Arsenal was unmatched and greater than the hatred for their Merseyside neighbours. The 2008-09 BPL season blew this myth into pieces.

United had closed the gap on Liverpool in the 2007-08 season on both domestic as well as European fronts by winning their seventeenth and third titles respectively. The onus was now on the team from Merseyside to respond to United, who seemed determined and now within striking distance to ‘knock them off their f***ing perch’.

The season began in usual fashion with Chelsea banging in goals and collecting points for fun, Arsenal playing beautiful football, United off pace but remaining in touch and the pundits talking about whether Liverpool would remain in the title race till the end. But this time around Liverpool did put up a genuine title challenge. They started the season brightly and soon registered their win against United since 2004. They remained unbeaten till November and went the whole season losing only two games – the least by any team.

At the turn of the year, Liverpool found themselves in a happy, though unfamiliar position in the league table. For the first time in ages, everybody involved with the club thought that the time had arrived for the drought to be finally over. This included their manager Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard took on the mantle of tackling Sir Alex Ferguson by responding to his mind games with, what is now infamously known as ‘Rafa’s Rant’. Unfortunately for him, his players could not carry that spark onto the pitch and managed to win only two of the next six games, giving United a healthy lead at the top of the table – a lead which proved to be decisive at the end of the season.

‘Rafa’s Rant’, while not as dramatic as the ‘I will Love It’ by Kevin Keegan, was similar to the verbal battles between Fergie and Wenger during the previous years, but the nature of the comments and the response by the media rolled back the years to remind us of the greatest rivalry in English football. It got both sets of supporters involved and the passion of even the former players turned pundits turned supporters could be seen on television.

Liverpool’s title challenge was fading when they arrived at Old Trafford, seven points behind the hosts having played a game more, and a win for the Red Devils would have virtually sealed the title. Liverpool had regrouped after a temporary loss in form and had come to OT after a four-nil demolition of Real Madrid. The game saw Fernando Torres terrorising, the brilliant-till-then, Nemanja Vidic and Liverpool ended up thrashing United. But the title race was blown wide open when United lost the week-after at Fulham, reducing their lead to a solitary point. On the other hand, Liverpool put five past fourth place Aston Villa at Anfield and it was ‘Game On’. The chants of ‘Are you watching Manchester?’ were in the air at Anfield and suddenly this became more than just this season’s title race.

Aston Villa visited Old Trafford to play what was United’s most challenging game. With Rooney and Vidic suspended and Ferdinand Injured, United were looking down the barrel, and trailing 1-2 at the hour mark. Ronaldo leveled things with ten minutes to go and there was hope in the air. Then, three minutes into the injury time, a ball in the box a swift turn and then Martin Tyler’s ‘Machedaaaaaaa’. A name that many supporters coming to the ground would not have even heard off. The seventeen year old curled brilliantly past a helpless former Liverpool keeper, Brad Friedel, to win it for Manchester United. The title race was tilted back in favour of the champions and they were never to look back.

The chants of ‘Are you watching Merseyside?’ started at the Stretford End and this rivalry became more about the joy of defeating the other team than winning itself.The ‘Are you watching?’ chants were sung at Old Trafford and Anfield regularly as Liverpool brushed aside the other teams comfortably whereas Manchester United kept grinding out results as they had done all season to keep the title race alive.

The race was finally over on 16th May ’09 after United got the point they required against Arsenal at Old Trafford. The fans waved banners stating ’18 Times and that’s a fact’. It may not have been the best title triumph in terms of conquering the league but it was certainly one of the sweetest for anyone associated with Manchester United football club. It was certainly different to watch Liverpool lose out so closely to United in a title race and after seeing the banner at Anfield in 1994 which said ‘Au Revoir Cantona and Man United…Come Back When You’ve won 18!’, the Mancs can certainly say “YOU ARE NOT WALKING ALONE”.