Two

Advent Calendar Day 2: The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times

December 2nd: Today’s TBT Advent Calendar piece comes from Andrew Beasley who takes a closer look at the 2008/2009 season, a season that saw Liverpool’s last real title challenge.

They eventually finished second behind Manchester United, but it was still a great season for Rafa Benitez’s side.

Mind you, I’ve been here during the bad times too – one year we came second.” Bob Paisley.

The above line was a light-hearted gag from Liverpool’s most successful ever manager, but you’d have to wonder what he’d make of how the Reds have performed since his death in 1996. The bad times? For a whole generation of Kopites, myself included, finishing second has very much been the best of times in the league, Bob.

2008/09 was a remarkable season for so many reasons, and the hindsight gifted by the five campaigns that Liverpool have been through since only accentuates that view further. Remarkably, the Reds were only outside the top two in the table after four of their thirty-eight league fixtures, and one of those was on the opening day when they’d ‘only’ won 1-0 away from home at Sunderland.

As the season progressed, there were so many notable victories and heart-stopping comebacks that it’s hard to remember them all; indeed, writing this article has made me recall numerous fantastic moments that I had forgotten.

After a rare (and late) Jamie Carragher goal had inspired a 2-1 comeback win against Middlesbrough in Liverpool’s first home game, the second Anfield match saw Liverpool’s first league victory over Manchester United under Rafa Benitez as the Reds again came from behind to win 2-1. It wouldn’t be Liverpool’s only victory against their fierce rivals that season.

Summer turned to autumn and the results kept on coming. A 2-0 win at Goodison Park was followed by a remarkable victory at the City of Manchester Stadium, where Liverpool came from behind (are you noticing a theme yet?) to win 3-2, after being two goals down at half time. That the winner came in the final minute in front of the travelling Reds only served to make the moment even sweeter.

Chelsea’s eighty-six match unbeaten run at home was ended by Liverpool’s player of the year Xabi Alonso at the end of October, before the Reds suffered one of their two league defeats that season, away at Spurs.

Although the Reds wouldn’t be beaten for another sixteen matches, eight of the fifteen games in between the two losses were drawn. Liverpool were booed off the pitch at Anfield after drawing 0-0 with West Ham (with future fan favourite Lucas Leiva a particular target), even though the result sent the Reds to the top of the league; after the last few years we’ve all suffered, it’s hard to imagine booing Liverpool, as league leaders, these days.

A month later, and perhaps the defining event (certainly off-pitch) of the season occurred: Rafa’s ‘rant’. I hate that term, as it was nothing of the sort, but the tabloids love a bit of alliteration, don’t they? Although the Reds won more points-per-game, and scored more goals after the ‘rant’ than they did beforehand, it is viewed by many as the reason Liverpool failed to win the league.

While it was clearly not the Spaniard’s smartest move, the timing looked even worse when United took top spot from the Reds one week later, and never gave it up (at the end of a matchday) again that season. Had Steven Gerrard scored instead of hitting the woodwork late on in a 0-0 draw away at Stoke (on the weekend of the ‘rant’), then I’m sure it would’ve been forgotten far sooner. As an aside, Stoke City got two title-costing 0-0 draws out of Liverpool that season without mustering a shot on target in either; maybe I should have called this piece ‘Damn You, Tony Pulis’.

The points kept pouring in, not least with a 2-0 win at Anfield against Chelsea and yet another comeback win at Fratton Park, before the greatest league result in my twenty-five years of supporting the Reds happened on the 14th March.

Before the match, although Liverpool had spanked Real Madrid 4-0 in midweek, the situation facing the Reds was far from ideal. Liverpool were seven points behind their title rivals having played a game more, were without midfield metronome Xabi Alonso (despite what Jamie Redknapp has since claimed), and Sami Hyypia was only drafted into the starting XI after Arbeloa pulled up in the warm up. It turned out to be the legendary Finn’s final start for Liverpool, and like every single player in grey that day, he was superb.

You won’t need me to tell you, I’m sure, but it’s always enjoyable to write that I’m referring to Liverpool’s 4-1 win at Old Trafford. As chance would have it, the Reds travel to United on the same weekend this season; a repeat would be lovely, Brendan! When Fergie’s team lost at Fulham on the following Saturday, and Liverpool brushed aside Villa 5-0 the next day, the gap was down to one point, and the excitement really started to build again.

But sadly for all of us, there were still two major turning points to come. The following weekend saw Liverpool travel to Fulham, and after finding the woodwork several times (notice how this is not an entirely new phenomenon for the Reds), Yossi Benayoun popped up with an injury time winner. Cue bedlam in the away section with chants of ‘now you’re gonna believe us, we’re going to win the league’ filling the west London air for ages after the final whistle.

Unfortunately, the day after, seventeen year old Federico Macheda (who currently plys his trade at Doncaster Rovers) popped up with a late winner of his own as United saw off Aston Villa 3-2. Arguably worse was to come three weeks later, when United were 2-0 down to Spurs at half time, and were gifted a way back into the match thanks to a horrendous penalty award from Howard Webb.

So even though Liverpool won ten of their last eleven league games, drawing the other 4-4 with Arsenal, they were unable to reel in United and so they had to settle for second place. But what a journey, and what a parade of heroes that made it all possible.

Pepe Reina was still saving shots at above league average level, and even chipped in with two assists. Alvaro Arbeloa played at a level that earned him a move to Real Madrid, and on the other side Fabio Aurelio (a.k.a. Mr Glass) dragged his body through twenty-four matches and chipped in with a couple of goals, not least a great free-kick at Old Trafford.

Jamie Carragher played every match with a rotating cast alongside him, and all the defenders bar Martin Skrtel scored at least one league goal that year.

Into midfield, and Xabi Alonso displayed a masterful midfield performance throughout his swansong season, with the terrier-like Mascherano alongside him. Kuyt and Benayoun chipped in with twenty league goals from wide positions, and despite Dirk only being the club’s third top scorer in the league that season with twelve goals, he scored more than overall top scorer Luis Suárez did in 2011/12.

It might surprise you to know that Steven Gerrard only assisted Fernando Torres once for a goal in the 2008/09 Premier League campaign, contrary to their reputation as a partnership, but it matters not; both were superb that season, scoring thirty goals between them. Had they featured in more than seventeen games together (only fourteen of which saw both start), then the title would surely have been destined for Anfield.

Liverpool won thirteen and drew four of the seventeen matches that Gerrard and Torres both played in, taking 2.53 points per game. Extrapolate that across thirty-eight games and you get ninety-six points. Ah, what might’ve been…

What about the man who masterminded it all? Rafa Benitez might not have been able to bring the league title back to Anfield, but he oversaw a campaign where Liverpool took more points-per-game (2.26) than they did in seventeen of their eighteen championship seasons, and you can’t expect too much more than that.

At the time of writing, Liverpool are second in the league once again, having not been so well placed this far into a campaign since 2008/09. As Brendan Rodgers has won as many league points in his first fifty league games as Bob Paisley did (allowing three for a win), I suspect the former manager would approve of his latest successor, and joking aside, he’d have certainly enjoyed the ‘bad times’ of 2008/09.

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