19 September ~ When Manchester United won the Champions League in 1999, the United We Stand fanzine caught the mood perfectly. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was pictured on the front cover holding the trophy above the words This Is The One. For United fans, and their manager, the wait for that second European Cup became an obsession in the late 1990s. The Stone Roses' song summed up exactly how it felt to be a Manchester United fan that night: "This is the one I've waited for."
A skim through the autobiographies of Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane show just how focused the United hierarchy was on emulating Matt Busby's European success. Ferguson's obsession with the competition has not dimmed in the past decade. He is still bemoaning United's capitulation against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of last year's competition. As United have progressed over the past 24 years under Ferguson, Europe has become the centre of the club's ambitions. Winning another European Cup means more than anything to United fans – anything other than beating Liverpool that is.
Speaking as a United fan, there are only two dates I look out for when the fixtures are announced in August – Liverpool at home and Liverpool away. City might be the local rivals and Chelsea pose more of a threat as title challengers, but defeats to Liverpool still hurt the most. The Premier League has become so uncompetitive that a winning a game against Wigan only brings relief. But a win over Liverpool brings a sense of unparalleled joy. Arsenal, Spurs and Villa are arguably more competitive, but there is something intolerable about losing to Liverpool.
There is also something comforting about the rivalry. Even the most one-eyed United fan, the former club captain Gary Neville, had some kind words for Liverpool this week: "I have more respect for them as a club in a sense of their tradition and their history than I do for some other clubs who've been coming on the scene in the last few years, throwing a load of money at it. Liverpool have got a good history, you have to hand it to them, and they've been successful." In the same interview Neville also mentioned the jealousy and hatred he had for the club – some things never change – but his mood sums up the feelings of most United fans.
The arrival of Manchester City as the Premier League's nouveau riche club de jour has brought the similarities between the two red giants of the north west to light. When Tom Hicks and George Gillett took over Liverpool they promised not to emulate the Glazers at Old Trafford. It is difficult to tell which set of fans is now worse off. It says little for Liverpool's ambitions that Roy Hodgson was happy with a summer transfer window which saw the club swap Yossi Benayoun, Albert Riera, Alberto Aquilani and Javier Mascherano for Joe Cole, Raul Meireles, Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen. Standing still seems to count as progress on Merseyside these days.
Things don't look much brighter at United. Although Ferguson denies it, the club's perilous financial position is beginning to affect the quality of his squad. Gone are the days when he could break transfer records to secure world-class players at their peak. The signings of Javier Hernández, Chris Smalling and the mysterious Bebé point to an enforced conservatism in the club's spending. In last weekend's draw at Goodison Park, Ferguson neglected to pick any players bought in the past two years.
Europe might have become the priority for Ferguson over the past two decades, but the dreariness of failing to score at home to Rangers will be quickly forgotten if United win today. It won't matter in the slightest if it comes through an injury-time thumper from John O'Shea or a couple of Jamie Carragher own goals. The ten changes Ferguson made for Tuesday night's match said a lot about how highly he rated the opposition, but they also underlined the importance of today's match. This is the one we've waited for. Paul Campbell