It’s Saturday lunchtime, and the Premier League is flexing its muscles. A crowd of 76,000 at Old Trafford and an estimated global television audience of approximately eight billion people are tuning in to watch The Big Two lock horns. Towns and cities the length and breadth of the world fall silent for The Derby That Isn’t Quite A Real Derby, and Liverpool are in The Last Chance Saloon this afternoon. They’ve only lost twice in the Premier League all season, but they’re still seven points behind Manchester United, having played a game more than their biggest rivals. Should they lose this match, the Premier League title race is over in all but name. Yet, on Tuesday night Liverpool looked, for the first time this season, like one of the best football teams in Europe in demolishing Real Madrid at Anfield. Are English clubs really that far ahead of everyone else in Europe? It’s becoming more and more difficult that they aren’t.
Liverpool start brightly enough, but the Manchester United defence has only conceded five goals at home all season, and the rock like Nemanja Vidic is dealing with Fernando Torres in the way that a primary schoolteacher deals with a petulant child – swiftly, decisively and absolutely. It comes as no great surprise when Manchester United take the lead. Park gets the run of the ball on the left hand side of the penalty area. Jose Reina has a sudden rush of blood to the head and trips him (though it takes three replays to confirm that he actually made any contact with the onrushing forward), and Cristiano Ronaldo converts the penalty. Business as usual, then, at Old Trafford. On the touchline, Rafael Benitez opens a black suitcase. The cameras don’t focus on this, preferring to lavish their attention upon the action on the pitch, but Benitez pulls out a small straw doll wearing a red shirt, white shorts and black socks. If you look very closely, the shirt has “Vidic” written on the back of it. Putting the doll to one side, he then pulls out a small pin box. In a last throw of the dice to keep Liverpool’s Premier League aspirations alive, Rafael Benitez is turning to voodoo.
The effect is almost immediate. United have only been in front for five minutes when Skrtel plays a long, aimless ball down the centre of the pitch. Benitez pulls the largest pin out of the bag and jabs it into Vidic’s right foot. The defender stumbles, winces in pain and takes his eye off the ball for just long enough to allow Fernando Torres to get in behind him and roll the ball past Van Der Saar to bring Liverpool level. Just before half-time, Steven Gerrard finds himself in a little space on the right hand side of the Manchester United penalty area. A split second before Michael Evra goes to challenge him, Rafael Benitez pulls out his Steven Gerrard doll and bends the ankles. Evra makes contact with him – it’s a poorly timed challenge – but Gerrard has already started to go down, and Liverpool have a penalty. Gerrard, perhaps surprisingly not critically injured by the combination of Evra’s tackle and Benitez’s mad voodoo skills, picks himself up to give Liverpool an unlikely 2-1 half-time lead.
Manchester United push forward early in the second half. Carlos Tevez has a decent chance to bring them level, but Benitez is up to his tricks again, picking up a gargoyle-shaped doll in a red shirt and twisting its right foot round in a circle. Tevez’s shot screws well wide of the post. With fourteen minutes left to play, Kuyt’s flick allows Gerrard a route past Vidic. Benitez picks up the Vidic doll and the Gerrard doll and wraps their arms around each other to make it look as if they’re kissing. On the pitch, Vidic wrestles Gerrard to the ground, and the referee, oblivious to the Liverpool manager’s fiendish touchline antics, awards a free kick and sends Vidic off. Aurelio steps up to take the free kick, but Benitez isn’t finished yet. From the suitcase, he produces a tall, thin straw doll dressed in blue. As the ball curls over the defensive wall, Van Der Saar is left rooted to the spot as the ball curls into the corner of the goal.
With a two goal lead and Manchester United’s best defender having been sent off you might think that Benitez will put his suitcase away, lest he be discovered by Premier League officials. This, however, is too good a moment to allow to pass – the opportunity to hand out a proper thrashing to the European champions in their own back yard. As the clock ticks over into injury time, Benitez pulls the straw dolls representing the entire Manchester United defence out of his suitcase and, as Reina takes a goal kick, throws the dolls about three feet. The three remaining United defenders hurtle twenty yards up the field, and the ball bounces through to full back Andrea Dossena, who lobs the ball over Van Der Saar to complete the rout. Moments later, the final whistle blows, and Liverpool have the three points. Moreover, it’s their biggest win at Old Trafford since 1936.
The Premier League title race still looks like being a done deal. Even after this result, Manchester United still have to lose three more of their remaining ten matches for Liverpool to be able to catch them, and this assumes that Liverpool will win all of their remaining matches. Still, with Rafael Benitez apparently happy to use The Dark Arts to end Liverpool’s eighteen year wait for a championship win, only a fool would say that the race for the Premier League title is over just yet. For the record, I use the word “apparently” because I didn’t actually see any this voodoo happen – it’s merely a more convincing explanation for what happened at Old Trafford today than the more obvious one, that Manchester United had been saving up all of their defensive lapses for the entire season for this one match and that a Liverpool side energised by their midweek thrashing of Real Madrid were more than happy to take advantage of such slovenliness. It would go a long way towards explaining that beard, too.