It was a frantic finish to the 08/09 season and I was approaching the end of my first year of university. Back home for the weekend, with finals around the corner, the United game was on. It was (and still is) a standard ritual to watch the United game while planning the rest of the day around it, and so everything else was naturally cast aside.
This game was particularly interesting as United were playing Aston Villa at Old Trafford on April 5th, 2009. After seemingly cruising towards the title as the most menacing team Sir Alex had ever built, the title race had been blown wide open by Liverpool’s crushing 4-1 victory at Old Trafford, followed by a 2-0 United loss away to Fulham at Craven Cottage. The title race had been turned on its head. Liverpool were closing in on United and had all the momentum.
Vidic had been sent off vs. Liverpool (completely run ragged by the Torres, Gerrard and Alonso combination) and Rooney had been sent off against Fulham (for chucking the ball so hard some say it is still travelling), and nerves were definitely on edge as bums settled onto seats. Rio Ferdinand was also unavailable. Liverpool had leapfrogged United at the top of the table with a game in hand prior to the kick off, and it was a must win game for the Red Devils.
The game started well, with Ronaldo scoring a freekick in the 14th minute which was awarded inside the penalty area as the result of a sloppy back pass from Milner to Friedel. At 1-0, nerves were eased and it seemed like this game was in the bag. Thoughts of the blips over the previous two games were drifting away and United cruising to the title began to enter my mind. I assumed that the text message abuse I was receiving from Liverpool fans (and others – anybody who hated United) would now cease and in fact, I was starting to consider returning the favour with interest.
Things were rarely straightforward, however. Jon Carew – unmarked by either Gary Neville or John O’Shea – a horrendous pairing in hindsight – equalized on the 30 minute mark after heading home from a Gareth Barry cross.
I was shocked at how casually the team was defending. With the score 1-1 at half-time, there was a nervous atmosphere inside Old Trafford that had transcended and been passed on to living rooms across the world. There was no event that could take me away from the television – not even going to the washroom. We needed to score desperately and keep Liverpool at bay. It would be the most horrendous, humiliating and shameful way to lose the title to our worst rivals, and the critics were all too ready to carve into United if they slipped up. I could not bear to imagine Rafa Benitez getting this one over Fergie. It would have gone against the way of the world as I had understood it for all of my life.
In the 58th minute, after a casual cross into the box, Agbonlahor headed home (once again unmarked in the six yard box) past Van Der Sar and United were now losing 2-1. The panic was just about taking full effect. I started to think about ways to contain the abuse that was about to flood my life and drown me in humiliation. Was the world unravelling before my eyes? Was the season coming to a grinding halt after looking like a done deal only two weeks before?
On came 17 year old Kiko Macheda to replace Nani at the hour mark for his first ever senior team appearance. I did not understand this sub at the time as I was busy putting my phone on silent to avoid further abuse (including my Facebook newsfeed which was exploding). I could only watch and hope for a miracle – a truly isolating and humbling feeling for a football fan.
Thankfully, a breakthrough arrived in the 80th minute – Ronaldo equalizing with a precise finish with his weaker foot from outside the box that beat Friedel at the far post. The pressure that led to the goal had been immense, with Michael Carrick in an incredibly attacking position for his standards to provide the assist. At 2-2 with 10 minutes left, a point still didn’t feel like enough. It would be considered two points dropped. Liverpool had won earlier in the day. A win was the only thing that would put United top of the table again and more importantly, stop Liverpool’s surge.
United pressed for the winner and were leaving themselves exposed at the back. O’Shea made a crucial interception in the dying moments of the game to deny a clear chance while Welbeck missed in front of the Stretford End. Standard. It was deep into the five added minutes of “Fergie Time”, and I was sweating profusely while my heart was in my mouth.
Then – it happened. Neville squared to Macheda on the edge of the Villa area, but the debutant lost it. Giggs picked it up and passed it back to the feet of Macheda, who had his back to goal. His first touch was sublime – nimble enough to lose his man and create a half-yard of space with which he took a first time, no-look shot, that curled perfectly and beautifully into the far side of the net, sending every United fan across the world into delirium. Martin Tyler’s voice cracked as he screamed “MACHEEEEDAAAAAA”! It was unbelievable.
Relief was sweet, and I was mentally and emotionally exhausted after that match. Pandemonium struck the fans in Old Trafford and some were reduced to tears after the rollercoaster of a match. To this day, I believe the title race was won with that Macheda strike that even broke Martin Tyler’s voice as it went in. It was a stupendous moment which will forever be etched in sync with the name Macheda, the man who won United the title with his first appearance for the club in 2008/09. He would only make 18 more.