Three years ago today, a 17-year-old Italian by the name of Federico Macheda was thrown in at the deep end during a frantic 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, going on to score an extraordinary injury time winner with a fantastic curling effort that sealed a dramatic 3-2 victory over Aston Villa.
Prior to kick off in that game, Liverpool had leapt above United to sit at the summit of the Premier League, following an injury time win over Fulham. Liverpool had been in stupendous form leading to the game, demolishing United’s challengers that afternoon the week before, sauntering to a 5-0 win over Aston Villa. A week prior to that, there was that game at Old Trafford, where Liverpool humiliated United in a traumatic 4-1 thrashing.
For that brief moment in time, Liverpool were back on top of the pile in English football. After that devastating battering at the hands of their greatest rivals, United went on to lose on the road at Fulham, before finding themselves on the brink of more dropped points as they looked to be heading to a 2-2 draw with Villa. Then Macheda was given his opportunity to write his name in history, and he duly obliged.
Macheda’s winner not only sealed United’s victory and provided their first points in three games, but it restored the sense of belief and desire that thrust the team towards their 18th English title. In the grander scheme of things, it arguably shaped the following instalments of Premier League football. Thoroughly inspired by their result at Old Trafford, Liverpool were inexorably pursuing United again, led by an imperious Steven Gerrard and one Fernando Torres, playing with the confidence and sublime class befitting of a man labelled as the best forward in world football at the time. That victory at Old Trafford reignited Liverpool’s title challenge and well and truly rattled Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. But it didn’t last.
The 2008/09 season is looked back upon fondly from the United perspective. Premier League, League Cup and World Club Cup success yielded adulation around Old Trafford in a season where an unprecedented quintuple was an agonizingly close reality, scuppered by a semi-final exit in the FA Cup and a runner up spot in the Champions League. Much of that domestic success was built on an outstanding defensive performance, where United broke British records by going eleven games without conceding a goal, as Edwin Van Der Sar scooped the personal accolade of the feat, securing the British top flight record for time spent without conceding, an incredible 1,311 minutes. The proverbial icing on the cake came in the form of Ryan Giggs scooping an overdue PFA Player Of The Year award.
The now infamous ‘Rafa rant’ is also looked back upon as being an imperative factor in United’s eventual title success. Always the Don of mind games, Sir Alex dangled the bait in front of his old adversary Rafa Benitez, who like others before him, unwittingly bit. Rafa obliged, launching his ‘facht’ laced tirade on United, accusing Sir Alex’s troops of constantly benefiting from refereeing decisions and being looked upon favourably by the powers at be behind the scenes at the Premier League. At the time of the rant, Liverpool were sitting atop the Premier League, and in the subsequent weeks, Rafa’s men began to falter, and it appeared the old master has successfully managed to rattle another adversary in the wake of yet another titanic title battle.
Football is often drowned in hypothetical questions and scenarios, where the what-could-of-been’s and what-should-of-been’s become the foundation of back page analysis and pub discussion for months and years that follow. But the circumstances surrounding Macheda’s winner that afternoon had a defining effect on the conclusion of the league that year, and is a pure example of how fine the margins between success and failure are in football. The circumstances on the day were of fairy tale wonderment; a 17-year-old unknown outside of Manchester United’s fan base jumping off the bench to score a magnificent last minute winner is in itself a story that that ranks amongst the most poetic in recent Premier League history. But retrospectively, that goal changed the course of the season, and perhaps history. Despite ‘facht-gate’, Liverpool were coming on strong following their demolition job at Old Trafford, and were perhaps favourites for the title, raking in the points with an often scintillating brand of football, as United briefly struggled to dust themselves off. Macheda’s winner revitalised a fatigued team who had suffered the indignity of two losses on the trot, and provided the impetus to better Liverpool’s fine form and march on.
United went on to win seven of the eight remaining games of the season, and finished just four points ahead of Liverpool; a statistic that measures how vital those points against Aston Villa were. As hypothetical as it may be, had Macheda not clinched victory for United on that draining afternoon, the door may have been left upon for Liverpool to march on and claim the title. Had United not rediscovered the relentless drive epitomised by the Italian that afternoon, perhaps they wouldn’t have gone onto equal Liverpool’s record of 18 league titles that season; in fact it would have been left Liverpool to extend theirs to 19.
Not a bad afternoon for a 17-year-old making his debut, then.