The Red Devils have dominated English football for the best part of 20 years, but the team they replaced at the top of the tree now have the opportunity to turn the tables
It was September 2002 when Sir Alex Ferguson delivered one of his most famous retorts. “My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f****** perch. And you can print that.”
Even if Liverpool fans argue that years of mismanagement at Anfield had more than played its part in their demise, it was certainly Ferguson who would take the credit for establishing Manchester United in their stead.
Liverpool had ruled the roost from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. Dark days for United, the first English club to win the European Cup, who watched on as the Merseysiders took Europe by storm and went 18-7 up in terms of English top-flight titles.
But they had entered the wilderness under the stewardship of Graeme Souness and by the time Ferguson left Old Trafford last summer the club he rebuilt in his image had racked up a total of 20 titles, with Liverpool stuck on 18.
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But with United at a crossroads under their new boss, David Moyes, and with Liverpool playing some of their best, most confident football of the last two decades, there will be a feeling among both sets of supporters that the tables could turn again.
Back in the 1980s Ferguson bitterly complained that managers “have to leave [Anfield] choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth.” He soon made Old Trafford that place where the opposition would hate to go – United did not concede from a league penalty once between 1993 and 2004. But that fear factor has gone.
United remain a giant of European football, making money hand over fist with lucrative commercial deals established monthly. But all that wealth will be needed to overhaul a squad that has at times this season looked to have thrown in the towel.
Moyes, who has worked on a shoestring budget until joining United, and new vice-chairman Ed Woodward will be entrusted to spend that money on players who will keep the club at the top of the tree, but it will not be easy.
With Ferguson gone, it is a fact that United’s pulling power has diminished. They are a club players will still want to join, but if they fail to qualify for the Champions League that will represent yet another stumbling block in their bid to sign the world’s finest players. Lest we forget, Moyes’ first transfer window at United ended in an internal enquiry.
Even if they bring in the five or six top names they are said to be chasing, they will be replacing a core part of Ferguson’s squad. How many times has such a huge overhaul paid instant dividends?
A year ago it would be unthinkable that United would be no longer considered top-four shoe-ins, but that is now the reality. Manchester City and Chelsea are permanent fixtures, and Arsenal are proven specialists, so it is Liverpool who will most likely be vying for that final seat at Europe’s top table.
Their turnaround under Brendan Rodgers has been remarkable. Kenny Dalglish’s second Anfield reign brought trophies and final appearances but also farce. Rodgers has slowly steadied the ship and, after a difficult first season, has the Reds very much in the title race. The fact he has done so with a small squad and limited investment is testament to his abilities as a manager.
Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have formed an exciting partnership which not only brings goals but genuine excitement. Young players like Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson have provided a very able supporting cast, which has bailed out a shaky defence on several occasions this season.
They are not the finished article and Liverpool have had their fair share of false dawns over the years – who could have foreseen their collapse in 2009-10? – but Rodgers’ work has fostered excitement at Anfield.
It also goes to show what can be done with smart investment, and should actually give heart to United fans that Moyes can turn around this season’s misfortune and make the club title challengers again this time next year.
Years of success mean only a fool would write United off, and arguably an even bigger fool would back Liverpool to deliver on their promise, but both clubs are currently at a crossroads. The next step, this summer’s transfer market, will be crucial.
If United fail to get their targets they will almost certainly be left behind once again, and even if they do spend the money Moyes must forge a winning squad instantly.
Liverpool’s priority will be keeping hold of Suarez. Rodgers was let down by his board in January and he will need much more support if he is to either build around Suarez or replace him, but in players like Sturridge and Coutinho he has shown he can spot a bargain.
Manchester United are not finished yet, but Liverpool are as close as they have ever been to knocking them right off their perch. And we’ll print that.