Liverpool vs United title challenges revisited as Red Devil rise again

Could we witness another classic Liverpool-United title battle? These fierce rivals have had some memorable fights for top spot, including Rafa’s ‘facts’ meltdown and Fergie trying to outdo Kenny

  • Liverpool and Manchester United occupy the top two Premier League positions
  • The bitter rivals have not actively been engaged in a title race since 2008-09 
  • Many pundits feel United, without Champions League, can push Liverpool close 
  • Sportsmail takes a look through the archives of the titans going head to head 

Manchester United’s recent victory over Wolves, courtesy of a clinical strike deep into added time, brought about some serious nostalgia.

United snatched three points from all but nowhere, and shot up to second place in the Premier League table as a result, just two points behind leaders Liverpool.

The performance and manner of victory harked back to a United of yesteryear; a side who found victories when they needed them most and stacked one impressive result upon another.

There is now a quiet optimism around Manchester United that a title tilt could be possible

Marcus Rashford’s injury time winner vs Wolves was reminiscent of an Alex Ferguson victory

United kept their winning run going with a win against Aston Villa on Friday to draw level on points with leaders Liverpool and their players are finally doing the talking on the pitch. 

They are still blessed with midfield talisman Bruno Fernandes being in the form of his life. In between the sticks, David De Gea has regained an element of consistency while up front Anthony Martial and homegrown hero Marcus Rashford are clicking nicely.

What is more pertinent, United are now seriously being considered as title contenders. They are without Champions League football following their group stage elimination, meaning all focus is now purely on the league – albeit with Europa League commitments on the side.

There is a long way to go in the Premier League campaign, which has already served up many twists and turns across the division, but whisper it quietly; we could finally have a Liverpool – United title race on our hands once again.

Liverpool sit top of the table and still appear to be the team to beat this season

The two bitter rivals are arguably the greatest foes in English football. Sure, Liverpool have a city rivalry with Everton and United wage war with neighbours city, but when it comes to meeting each other with a title up for grabs, the passions always burns brightest.

It has been several years since a race for the title was drawn out between Liverpool and United, with much of the rivalry stemming from and developing via the latter’s powerful rise, as the men from Merseyside embarked on a dramatic fall from grace.

But now, at last, we have the seeds for a new dawn. It could be a season like no other and, to take a deeper look, Sportsmail delved into the title races the two titans have shared in years gone by. 

Premier League 2008-09

Title winners: Manchester United (90 points)

Second placed: Liverpool (86 points)

This was the season with thrills and spills at every turn.

United’s dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson was at an all-time high, with one of the finest sides being assembled under his command.

Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez patrolled the forward line, while the likes of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs pulled the strings in midfield. Added to this, in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, they boasted arguably the best central defensive pairing in the world.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez struck an iconic rivalry during the 2008-09 title race

But then came Liverpool, led by the iconic Rafa Benitez. The master Spanish tactician had been slowly tinkering with his squad ever since Liverpool shocked the world in 2005 and won the Champions League.

It is often forgotten, but the Reds also made the Champions League final just two years after that historic night in Istanbul, meeting AC Milan once more but losing out in Athens.

On a shoestring budget Benitez had been slowly adding new names while drilling his team into both an efficient and resilient outfit.

It was a Liverpool side primed for big things, yet ultimately missing the final pieces to see them over the line. It was this aspect which would be the undoing of Benitez’s squad, and prompted the Reds boss to embark on his now infamous ‘facts’ rant as the pressure from United became unmanageable.

Ryan Babel smashed home a late Kop end winner when the two sides met at Anfield early on

Of the two league meetings of the rivals in this season, Liverpool won on both occasions.

The first showdown came at Anfield in September, as the campaign was merely in its infancy. The fixture was a debut for new signing Dimitar Berbatov, but it was another striker in Argentine star Tevez who would dazzle by scoring at the Kop end after just three minutes.

Liverpool fought back after Wes Brown put the ball in the back of his own net courtesy of pressure from another debutant, budget winger Albert Riera. Momentum shifted and a late Ryan Babel goal snatched all three points for the hosts.

It was at Old Trafford at the crunch end of the season, March 2009, when the two sides met again and Liverpool put down their clearest indicator yet that a title was ready to return to Merseyside.

An early Cristiano Ronaldo penalty was cancelled out by the mercurial Fernando Torres and his dismantling of Vidic, which resulted in the sending off of the Serbian. Steven Gerrard, Fabio Aurelio and even substitute Andrea Dossena added insult to injury and secured a remarkable 4-1 victory on United’s own turf.

Liverpool’s huge 4-1 statement win at Old Trafford saw Fernando Torres haunt Nemanja Vidic

Yet, despite Benitez’s Liverpool going on to lose just two games throughout the entire campaign, they would be badly hamstrung by 11 draws which saw the points continuously eek away.

United, in contrast, were ruthless. Ferguson’s men lost four times that season but drew just six. They finished the season with three more victories than Liverpool, and clinched the Premier League title four points clear on 90.

First division 1987-88

Title winners: Liverpool (90 points)

Second placed: Manchester United (81 points)

We have to travel back to the late eighties to see the next incidence of a straight title race resulting in a first and second place finish between the two teams.  

Liverpool and United bruised through the campaign, hammering those around them and finishing the season in open water from the rest.

When it came to head-to-heads though, the old foes could not be separated.

A November meeting at Old Trafford resulted in a hard grind of a 1-1 stalemate, with goals courtesy of John Aldridge and Norman Whiteside.

In April of the following year, 1988, the teams would meet again. This time around Anfield saw plenty of goals, but once again there was no separating the two northern powerhouses in a 3-3 thriller.

Peter Beardsley goes past United’s Brian McClair in April 1988, a year which Liverpool won the league by a nine-point margin after losing just two matches

After going behind to an Bryan Robson goal after just three minutes, Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool composed themselves and amassed a bold 3-1 lead with Peter Beardsley, Gary Gillespie and Steve McMahon finding the back of the net.

A second half of complacency allowed United a route back. Robson scored his second of the match, before Gordon Strachan slotted home on 77 minutes to wrap up a draw.

The tension in the Merseyside air could be cut with a knife at the final whistle, as frustration hung heavy. The result saw Liverpool remain top of the pile with United in second, though the hosts certainly felt like this was an opportunity lost.

Nonetheless Liverpool got it over the line. Both teams drew 12 games during this season, yet while Dalglish’s side were defeated only twice United lost five.

It was to be their undoing, and Liverpool lifted the old first division title on 90 points with a nine-point margin. 

First division 1979-80

Title winners: Liverpool (60 points)

Second placed: Manchester United (58 points)

In a 42-game season Liverpool and United would again emerge on top, exchanging blows throughout an arduous campaign which would see them eventually separated by just two points.

Bob Paisley and Dave Sexton faced off in the dug-out as the teams met for the first time in the season on a cold Boxing Day of 1979.

Almost 52,000 spectators watched on as Liverpool stamped their dominance all over the Anfield showdown. 

The rivalry between the two sides gained extra intensity in the eighties. Pictured: Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish shields the balls from United’s Mike Duxbury in the Milk Cup final

Alan Hansen opened the scoring before putting in an imperious display in defence, marshaling the Reds to a 2-0 victory with David Johnson’s 85th minute strike doubling the margin.

United would exact revenge upon the second meeting of the campaign, winning 2-1 in early April at Old Trafford in a slog of a match which saw Liverpool forced to change part of their kit at the half-time interval due to the referee struggling to differentiate.

Talisman Dalglish bagged for the Reds, but goals from Jimmy Greenhoff and Mickey Thomas saw United come out on top and take the spoils.

The final weeks of the season brought nail biting aplenty. United were desperate to reel in the Merseysiders, but Paisley’s troops held firm and retained their title won the year prior.

Bob Paisley saw Liverpool pip United to the title, before a period of dominance in the eighties

Nottingham Forest, who had instead been expected to push Liverpool all the won, went on to channel their efforts into winning the European cup.

It was a 12th league title for Liverpool, as Johnson finished the season as top scorer in the first division. 

As for United, it would be eight years before the side would once again challenge strongly for the title (finishing second in the 1987/88 season) as the club lost it’s way in the early eighties and Liverpool reigned supreme.

Honorable mentions

Premier League 2001

Title winners: Arsenal (87 points)

Second placed: Liverpool (80 points)

Third: Manchester United (77 points)

This campaign eventually belonged to the majesty of Arsene Wenger’s mercurial Arsenal team, though early stages of the season saw Liverpool and United’s rivalry flare once more.

Under Gerard Houllier Liverpool looked ready, at long last, to place themselves back in the reckoning after years in the wilderness.

The Reds didn’t have the legs to go the distance with Arsenal, though finished a respectable second with a three point buffer on United.

Houiller’s side had won a treble of honours the season prior, including both English domestic trophies and the UEFA Cup. The animosity with United had truly returned.

First division 1975-76

Title winners: Liverpool (60 points)

Second placed: QPR (59 points)

Third placed: Manchester United (56 points)

It was the mid-seventies and Liverpool were crowned once again.

Silverware headed to Anfield but United, who staged a valiant title attempt, finished just four points behind the champions.

Such was the tight nature of this season, it did not even warrant a second place finish. That honour went to Queens Park Rangers, who concluded the campaign just a point off the summit.

It was all the more impressive, given it was the United’s first year back in the top flight following relegation in 1973-73.

The Red Devils went on to win at Anfield before barricading the hatches during a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, in a hard-fought top flight season.

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