25 October 2009 ~ Gary Neville claimed this week that he would rather Manchester United lose their games against Liverpool and reclaim the championship than win the matches and concede the title. Most fans would agree, but when the clock strikes two this afternoon (or three if you haven't put them back) it will not feel like that at Anfield. "We're glad we picked up the three points" is standard speak for post-match player interviews, with "we're in a results business" the translation for managers. This is understandable and even necessary on occasions, but winning a game of football means more than the consequences of the result.
Even for fans of the most successful clubs, matches are events, not just opportunities to acquire points and silverware. Last season is a case in point. United plodded their way to a third consecutive title by keeping a series of clean sheets. For all the feting of Ryan Giggs and the fussing over the futures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Nemanja Vidic was their best player, the Liverpool fixtures aside. United's defence, which went 11 games without conceding a goal, won them the League. And while there is nothing wrong with that, winning ugly doesn't compare to trouncing your rivals.
Liverpool, on the other hand, had a whirlwind of season. They didn't win any trophies, but they beat United twice and scored four goals at Old Trafford for the first time in eons (well, since 1936). They demolished Real Madrid at Anfield, ended Chelsea's unbeaten record at Stamford Bridge and hosted Arsenal in the game of the season, their four-all draw.
United's objective last season was to equal Liverpool's 18 League championships, a challenge they rose to. But the season did not really throw up matches that United fans can look back on wistfully. The scoreless draw that secured the title was typical of a team more gifted in grinding out results than crushing the opposition. Even en route to the Champions League final, United failed to produce a game that will live long in the memory. Four draws at the group stage and a few tight wins took them to the Emirates for the semi-final second leg. Beating Arsenal was probably the peak of their season, but even that game was over after ten minutes.
Nothing in last year's Champions League campaign could match the 1998-99 European run. For Manchester United fans, the 3-3 draws with Barcelona, home and away in the group stages of the Champions League, are two of the best games in their recent history. Admittedly they went on to win it that year, but on paper the games only achieved two points – less than they picked up this week from a drab win in Moscow.
When the teams walk out today, the commentator will no doubt remind us that league positions go out the window in games like these. While players such as Gary Neville can claim to be focused on details like league tables, if United win today, he will be like a man possessed. As he jumps up and down, kissing his badge and team-mates, the three points will be the last thing on his mind.