In March 2009, it seemed like the Premier League title race was essentially over, with Manchester United cruising to a third straight title.
Alex Ferguson’s men were seven points clear with a game in hand. Liverpool and Chelsea were locked together in second, though Rafa Benitez’s team had more momentum than the Blues, but they still had to come to Old Trafford, where no visiting team had taken a point since Newcastle United on the opening day of the season.
And yet, just weeks later, United were reliant on the unlikeliest of sources – an untried 17-year-old – to salvage a season that was teetering towards collapse.
Liverpool were in fine form, but the manner of their win at Old Trafford still came as a shock, especially when Cristiano Ronaldo gave the home side a 1-0 advantage.
Four unanswered goals, including one from Andrea Dossena – Andrea Dossena! – is enough to jolt any team into action or inaction, and in United’s case, it was the latter.
They lost the following game at Fulham, with the Cottagers taking advantage of the absence of Nemanja Vidic – sent off the previous week for a foul on Fernando Torres – to beat United in west London for the first time in more than four decades.
Sometimes it’s too easy to accuse a title challenger of bottling it when they lose to an unfancied team, but this occasion – United ended with nine men at Craven Cottage after Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney were both dismissed – certainly qualifies.
At the very least it wasn’t the sort of thing we’d come to associate with a team that held its own down the home straight in each of the previous two seasons.
Those red cards at Fulham meant United went into their next game without Scholes and Rooney, while Vidic was also still unavailable.
It shouldn’t have been an issue, though, as they couldn’t have asked for many opponents more inviting than an Aston Villa side in freefall.
Martin O’Neill’s men had taken just one point from their previous five games and had gone eight without a win in all competitions as they saw their top-four hopes diminish. What’s more, they’d shipped five at Anfield before the March international break.
United were beginning to look a little threadbare, with five academy products named on their seven-man bench, but surely they’d have enough. Surely…
It certainly looked that way when Ronaldo opened the scoring after Brad Friedel handled a backpass and United won an indirect free-kick.
However, as the Liverpool game showed, United weren’t solid enough to sit on a single goal from the Portuguese and assume that would be enough.
The unusual manner of the first goal ought to have been enough to let both sides know this would be no ordinary game, but United didn’t heed the warnings.
John Carew had come close to opening the scoring when his header was cleared off the line by Darren Fletcher, and the Norway striker would eventually get his goal half an hour in when he headed home a Gareth Barry cross from the right.
United should have known they had the ability to respond, though, having scored twice in each of the three games before their defeat to Liverpool.
Instead, though, it was Villa who scored next: a move which started in the visitors’ half ended with Gabby Agbonlahor bravely beating Edwin van der Sar to a cross, taking a blow to the head but ensuring the ball ended up in the net.
The title race is often about momentum; United’s was only heading in one direction. Was the decision to introduce Kiko Macheda for his debut an inspired call, or was it an act of desperation from a manager with few other options? Or was it both?
Shaking off the stench of failure can be awkward and time-consuming, so Ferguson gambled on a quick fix. After all, if you haven’t played a minute for the first team then it’s impossible for you to have tasted defeat.
A record of 10 goals in 16 reserve team games was all United fans had to go on when trying to determine whether Macheda would have what it took to turn the game back in their favour. But first it would be Ronaldo’s turn to score, beating Friedel for a second time with a low left-footed effort into the corner of the American’s net.
The Ronaldo of Real Madrid or Juventus might have been relied upon to complete his hat-trick and seal victory on his own, but on this occasion United needed another man to step up. Well, we say man, Macheda was really still a boy.
Seconds before receiving the ball from Ryan Giggs, the Italian had tried – and failed – to get an early shot away. If Villa had been alert, they’d have recognised the danger of the same thing happening again, but these things happen so quickly that it’s often hard to marry the actions of the body and the mind.
The first touch provided enough of a change of direction to leave Luke Young flat-footed, and then the finish… well, it’s the sort of thing few would have the balls to try, let alone pull off.
“I think this is the day of my dreams – to score a goal like that on my debut,” Macheda said, but he wasn’t even done there.
In the very next game, just a minute after entering the field of play, he turned in a Michael Carrick shot to seal victory in a tense game against Sunderland.
United’s experienced squad was tensing up under the pressure of sealing a title which had looked inevitable just a month earlier, but Macheda had no such worries. In a way, he benefited from having not been there before: he wasn’t experienced enough to overthink or second-guess himself, and therefore instinct took over.
This might not be what you need over the course of an entire season, but when that season hinges on just two weeks it can be invaluable.
United won their next four games, and their game in hand after that, while Liverpool dropped points in a dramatic 4-4 draw against Arsenal. United had wrapped up the title with a game to spare – something which, when Macheda entered the field of play against Villa, seemed improbable.
“My life changed that day and it has never been the same since,” Macheda would recall in a 2017 interview with ESPN.
“To this moment, it remains the best football day of my life.”
He might not have hit those same heights since, but why would he even need to?
By Tom Victor