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Sunday 17 January 2021 17:25, UK
Fergie. Benitez. Facts. The last time Manchester United and Liverpool contested the Premier League title, it was a memorable campaign...
A title race between Liverpool and Manchester United all feels very 2000s. The last time these two sides found themselves at the head of the field to lift the Premier League trophy, Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister, Instagram had not been invented and the only talk of tiers was to describe football divisions.
But following United's win over Burnley on Tuesday night, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has now led the club to the top of the table for the first time in nearly two and a half years - and even that was only an opening-day win over Leicester. Now, he has the chance to open up a six-point gap on second-placed Liverpool when United travel to Anfield live on Sky Sports Premier League on Sunday from 4pm; kick-off at 4.30pm.
Further back than these two sparring in the first decade of the new millennium, this Super Sunday meeting will be the first time the game has been a first-versus-second affair since back in April 1997 - when United won 3-1 on Merseyside en route to the title.
This year, a run of nine wins from 11 games has catapulted Solskjaer's side from 15th in November to the summit of the Premier League inside two months, to put United back in the title race they so regularly fought in before Sir Alex Ferguson stood down in 2013.
Fergie was in charge last time the club went head to head with Liverpool for the Premier League crown in 2008/09, in what was a pulsating season on and off the pitch. Need a reminder? Well, let's get down to "the facts"…
Manchester United came into the season looking to win the Premier League for a third year in a row, something they had previously managed between 1998/99 and 2000/01. Ferguson had spent much of the summer fending off Real Madrid's advances for Cristiano Ronaldo, who he would ultimately only be able to keep at Old Trafford for another year.
Nevertheless, he drew a line under the transfer saga for that summer, at least, in late July. "I genuinely believe that he knows what the best club in the world is for him, and that is Manchester United," Ferguson told reporters.
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Not unlike this season, Manchester United had a slow start, picking up five points from their opening four games, including an early defeat at Anfield in mid-September courtesy of Ryan Babel and a Wes Brown own goal.
That result had helped Liverpool into a table-topping start of their own, with boss Benitez declaring the title his "top target" having finished 11 points behind United thanks to a frustrating number of draws in 2007/08. That looked a more realistic aim after eight wins from their opening 10 games, and even four draws and a 2-1 defeat at Spurs from their next eight matches could not dethrone them.
But then came 268 seconds which would come to define the campaign, and in some ways Benitez's tenure, when one otherwise ordinary Friday afternoon at Melwood would go on to play a major part in the title race.
On January 9, one day before a tough trip to Tony Pulis' Stoke, Benitez embarked on one of the Premier League's most memorable rants, accusing Ferguson of creating a narrative that "everybody is against United" and listing a number of incidents involving his opposite number and referees.
"During the Respect campaign - and this is a fact - Mr Ferguson was charged by the FA for improper conduct after comments made about Martin Atkinson and Keith Hackett. He was not punished. He is the only manager in the league that cannot be punished for these things," fumed Benitez.
"We are at the top of the table and they are nervous," he continued. But if anyone seemed unsettled, it was the Liverpool boss. His speech was later labelled a 'disaster' and 'a humiliation by then-captain Steven Gerrard.
"The mistake he made was to turn our rivalry personal," Ferguson himself would later recall in his autobiography.
"Once you made it personal, you had no chance, because I could wait. I had success on my side. Benitez was striving for trophies while taking me on. That was unwise.
"On the day he produced his famous list of 'facts' detailing my influence over referees, we received a tip-off that Liverpool would stage-manage a question that would enable him to go on the attack."
The outburst would prove so extraordinary it was transcribed in full by a number of national newspapers, and while Liverpool would only go on to lose one more game in the rest of the season, their form took enough of a blip for Ferguson to exploit as few else could.
It seems a while ago now that the traditional adage of any Ferguson-led United side, perhaps looking under pressure from rivals in the run-up to the new year, would always be to avoid resting on your laurels just yet. They would be back after Christmas.
Looking back, there is not a huge deal of in-depth analysis of whether Manchester United actually were 'always better after Christmas' - but in the case of 2008/09, they certainly were.
On the back of Benitez's rant, Liverpool would go on to win only two of their next seven games - dropping 11 points in the process - but United were already in full flow.
On the back of a 0-0 draw with Tottenham in mid-December, Ferguson racked up 11 wins in succession to lift United from third to first.
Dimitar Berbatov's 90th-minute winner at Bolton, a game which saw United keep a Premier League joint-record 10th clean sheet in a row, sent them top for the first time eight days after Benitez's outburst. Despite fan blog Stretford End saying they "played most of the season in second gear," United would drop only eight points in the entire second half of the season. It would prove too much for Liverpool to claw back.
In a season involving such a great title race both sides should have, on paper, had protagonists at the top of their game leading the line, in the shape of Fernando Torres and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But 2008/09 proved an injury-hit season for Torres and saw a return to normal form for Ronaldo, whose 18-goal haul would have been impressive in any campaign but could not come close to matching his tally of 31 in 2007/08.
Speaking in the run-up to the 2008 FIFA Player of the Year awards in January, where Ronaldo would be named winner, third-placed Torres hoped the looming March 14 showdown at Old Trafford between the two sides would yet prove the difference.
"What we must do is fight to the end and hope that we are equal when it comes to Old Trafford," he said.
"That match is going to be a real decider. We know our options, and giving the fans what they want is an extra incentive.
"The Premier League is more important than the Champions League to them and 19 years is a long time to wait for a club like Liverpool."
But even a 4-1 Liverpool thumping of the league leaders in Manchester, and a run of 10 wins from 11 to end the season, was not enough. A 4-4 home draw with Arsenal in the final weeks of the season - with Andrey Arshavin scoring all of the visitors' goals - put paid to any realistic hopes of the title once and for all.
Liverpool ended the season second, four points behind United, who kept the Premier League trophy at Old Trafford for a third successive year.
In a special Pitch to Post Preview Podcast we look ahead to Sunday's blockbuster between Liverpool and Man Utd at Anfield.
Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness joins Peter Smith to discuss the big match, including why the hosts will be wary of their rivals and which players must stand up and deliver for their side.
We also get the latest team news and possible starting XIs from Sky Sports News reporters James Cooper and Vinny O'Connor, while football writer Lewis Jones - AKA Jones Knows - makes his Pitch for what will happen in the game.