When We Were Good: Liverpool In March 2009

Benitez's team was at the peak of its powers. 5-0 against Madrid, beating the Mancs 4-1 at Old Trafford and slaughtering Villa at Anfield. Then the Yanks decided to ruin everything...
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A mention of glory days on Anfield Road and thoughts automatically turn to the days of Shankly and Liddel, Paisley and Hughes, Dalglish and Barnes. Despite having five titles in the bag by the time of Bill Shankly’s arrival in 1959 (not a record to be sniffed at considering a half-century later Chelsea have still only amassed four and Manchester City a mere two), there is no question the years ‘59 to ‘90 define Liverpool as a football club.

The list of honours and the means with which they were secured have been commemorated and analysed a million times previously, and a million times better than I could ever manage. If anyone wants to see when Liverpool were at their best, then look no further than these golden decades.

However, for a whole generation of fans, this era has only ever been enjoyed through books and YouTube, through DVD’s and second hand accounts. They have been enjoyed through every means possible, except the two that count most: experience and memory. For fans under 30 glory has been confined to fleeting successes like the 1992 FA Cup win, the 2001 cup trio or, most significantly, the 2005 Champions League triumph.

Although all were causes for varying degrees of euphoria, none were secured with the feeling that we were on the cusp of reclaiming our place at the top of the football pile (as much optimism as Istanbul brought, we still had a playing staff that included names like Traore, Baros, Cisse and Le Tallac). For me, that feeling of genuine optimism has only come once in the past twenty years, and that was epitomised best in a two week spell in March 2009.

Having shown clear signs of improvement over the preceding seasons, Rafa Benitez’s men began the 2008/09 season as many people’s dark horse for the title. Contrary to received wisdom, the Spaniard had bought well under the constraints of a sell-to-buy transfer policy, assembling a team of solid, dependable players like Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurellio, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and Jossi Benayoun to augment world class talents like Pepe Reina, Javier Macherano, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres, all of whom complemented the local, Scouse spine of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard.

This victory was characterised by flowing, clinical attacks, executed with a verve and swagger not seen since the days of Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge.

An inauspicious start included a few too many home draws against so-called lesser teams, draws that would ultimately prove decisive. These, coupled with injuries to key duo Torres and Gerrard meant it would be March before a settled Reds side got into their groove. But what a groove. Starting the month with an efficient 2-0 win over Sunderland, Benitez' men stepped it up a gear for the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie with Real Madrid at Anfield. Although leading 1-0 from the first leg, Liverpool threw caution to the wind and exploded out of the blocks, the only surprise being that it took them a full 16 minutes to open the scoring, such had been their domination, characterised by wave after wave of fluent, incisive attacks. The pace, movement and finishing of Torres and Gerrard was such that Real's withdrawal of their centre half, and recent World Player of the Year, Fabio Canavarro seemed as much an act of humanity as a tactical switch. Such was the Reds' dominance throughout, the fact that the final scoreline was merely 4-0 owed everything to Madrid ‘keeper and man of the match Iker Cassilas.

Any suspicions the Real result had been a freak were dispelled four days later when Liverpool travelled to Old Trafford to meet an in-form United, on a run of eleven consecutive wins. Extra spice had been added by a perceived anti-United rant from Benitez a couple of months previously. ‘Rafa’s cracking up’ was the common refrain from both United’s support and the forth estate alike. Despite falling behind to an early penalty, the Reds stormed back to win 4-1, with United centre halves Vidic and Ferdinand receiving the same treatment as Canavarro had the previous week. The Serb had begun the day as many pundits' favourite for Player of the Year but ended it with serious question marks over his ability.

A remarkable 12-day period was complete when Aston Villa were trashed 5-0 at Anfield the following week, with the Reds now fully into their imperious stride. As with the Real and United wins, this victory was characterised by flowing, clinical attacks, executed with a verve and swagger not seen since the days of Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge. In all, Liverpool won 10 of their final 11 league games, only dropping points in a crazy 4-4 draw with Arsenal, finishing with one of the highest runners-up points tally in the Premier League era, 86.

Any hope Liverpool fans had of the team building on the very real progress of the final third of the 2008/09 season were soon dashed by the club's American owners, who proceeded to not only starve Benitez of funds, but sell off key players. Indeed Liverpool would come last in the entire division in the following three transfer windows in terms of net spend on players. At a crucial juncture in the clubs modern history, they needed a benefactor but got only parasites.

Recent performances (if not necessarily results) under the second spell of Kenny Dalglish have given rise to renewed optimism at Anfield. But with City’s owners threatening to turn the Premiership into an eternal one-horse race, it could be many years before Liverpool fans regain the feeling of optimism that came from that magical two week spell in March 2009. For the time being at least, it seems books, youtube and DVD’s will remain essential possessions for Liverpool fans of a certain generation.

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