“It’s Mo Salah standing over the ball. His eyes glow with the desire to give Liverpool the lead in this tightly contested tie.”
Both the commentators went silent, waiting for the inevitable to happen.
“And he dispatches it home! As confident as ever. Liverpool have the lead…”
Liverpool beat Brighton 1–0 this gameweek thanks to that spot kick from Mo Salah, piling pressure on Manchester City to play catch up. As these sides contest for the title this season, my mind wanders back to a title race as intense as the current one, as unpredictable as the Premier League always is, but one that played out exactly a decade back. And in particular, to a game that was in many ways the game of that season, but would probably not find itself among the hall of fame of Premier League games.
Manchester United vs Aston Villa at the Old Trafford on 5th April 2009.
2008–09. The first time I watched a Premier League season.
Back then, Manchester was red. United had won two consecutive titles, and were challenging for a second hat-trick of titles in the PL era under Sir Alex Ferguson. Before United went on this streak though, Chelsea had emerged as a force to reckon with, having won two consecutive titles earlier under a certain enigmatic Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho (who, as we all know, has had a significant part to play in the Manchester United that we see today).
But United’s primary contender that season was not in London. It was Liverpool, inspired by their Champions League winning captain Steven Gerrard and a future world cup winner Fernando Torres, who had already scored in a Euro cup final and was tearing defenses apart week after week.
United took to the field against Villa with 9 games still to play. They came at the back of two successive defeats for the first time in four years — Liverpool had hammered them 4–1 at the Old Trafford, before they succumbed to a 2–0 loss away to Fulham, as Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney were sent off. Meanwhile, Liverpool had taken a slender lead in the title race. Their fans believed that this could be their year, after almost twenty years of waiting for the title (spoiler alert: that wait has now stretched to thirty).
Aston Villa at that time was one of the few teams that had never been relegated from the League. It was in the race for top four (and eventually finished fifth, right behind… you guessed it, Arsenal). This was a time when Villa boasted of having a young Ashley Young (who eventually moved to United), the solid central midfield presence of Gareth Barry (who went to City pretty soon), and of course, James Milner (who moved to City as well, before joining Liverpool, where he plays now).
United started without the injured defensive pair Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, in addition to the suspended Scholes and Rooney. Michael Carrick was at the helm of the midfield of the reigning European Champions and Carlos Tevez started out as a forward (who eventually joined rivals Manchester City). And of course, Cristiano Ronaldo set foot as the number 7.
One didn’t have to wait long to witness the dead ball genius of Ronaldo, as he gave United the lead in the 14th minute after a back pass from Milner was held by the Villa keeper, Brad Friedel. Before Toni Kroos against Sweden, there was Ronaldo against Villa — the slightest of touches to set the ball up, the backlift, the finish into the far corner, and the celebration. My amateur football mind thought then, well, United are back on course and this is another regulation victory in the making.
Fortunately, that was not to be. Villa scored not once but twice, and United were trailing, yet again. As the pressure mounted and the clock ticked, a 17-year old was introduced from the bench for the first time in the league — Federico Macheda. I wondered if the strongest team in Europe, the default starting team in FIFA 08, was so low on supplies that they had to introduce a debutant in a game that was so crucial for their title hopes. I was making the mistake of judging one of the greatest coaches in world football in one of the finest games of that season that I was watching live.
With ten minutes to go, Ronaldo scored again, this time finding the bottom corner with a powerful low shot. The score stood at 2–2, and stayed that way till the 90th minute, as United kept on pressing and Villa continued trying to find opportunities to exploit the gaps. As the five minutes of stoppage time started wearing down, I made the mental calculations. Liverpool would end the week on top. Not something I knew was possible when I had started watching football.
I had watched United’s earlier games, and the team had played much better in this one. Their defense may have been shaky, but I was finally getting to watch the gem of a player that Cristiano Ronaldo was, the beast who had gone on to delight the stage of world football for years to come, and is still in business. I thought I was watching the slow demise of a team that was once the strongest, and wondered who I would support once I started watching the sport more regularly. For that season at least, I was a neutral and was liking the fast paced nature of the game and the long drawn nature of the league.
It was then, amidst those thoughts of mild liking, of assuming that the day was done and the rest of the action would come the following week, that I watched something my brain couldn’t properly take in the first time the movement registered in my eyes.
In the third minute of stoppage time, Macheda received a pass from Neville on the edge of the box, and the ball soon landed in the feet of Giggs. The latter slid the ball back into Macheda’s path, albeit on his weaker side. The youngster shifted the ball to his right leg and turned on his heels in a move that left me gaping, and then curled the ball into the far corner with his right foot, while being in an unbalanced position with a defender seemingly blocking his way. The net bulged, the ball fell to the ground, Macheda rushed to the goal line, the men in red piled one on top of the other. I could barely believe the spectacle that I had just seen, but there it was.
It was a wonder debut for a youngster. It was a wonder goal, especially considering the circumstances of the game and the league. It was a wonder game.
United went on to eventually lift the Premier League trophy that season, beating Liverpool by four points. The very next game that United played after the one against Villa was in the Champions League against Porto, whose second leg witnessed a long range stunner by Ronaldo, the sort of goals only someone of his level could score in a high stakes encounter in Europe. I eventually watched arguably the only other player who was actually of his level in the Champions League final, as Barcelona ran out winners against United and Messi established himself as the young genius of world football who would be the envy of almost every other club in the world for years and years afterward.
Ten years on, United may not be the force it once was, but the recent surge of form, and especially the change in style, makes one hopeful of better times to come for the Red Devils. I like to think of United as a phoenix sometimes — a fictional bird that burns and then takes birth again from its ashes. Such has been the trajectory of the club as well; spells of trophy hauls followed by decades of struggle, poor management followed by genius. All witnessed fittingly by a stadium popularly known as the Theatre of Dreams.
Looking back at a decade of following the Premier League, games like the one between United and Villa on that sunny afternoon remind me of why I watch the game. It’s not just a beautiful game. It is the beautiful game.