"My reading of their squad was that they needed eight players to come up to title-winning standard." Sir Alex Ferguson, My Autobiography.
In happier times for Manchester United supporters, one of their fanzines, Red News, ran a back-page cover commemorating the "Annual Party when Liverpool can't win the League". The date was marked every time it became mathematically impossible since Liverpool's last championship in 1990. Eight different occasions in March, 12 in April and, most revealingly, three in May. At the bottom of the page, Kenny Dalglish was pictured in a straitjacket. "Next year's our year," said the speech bubble.
The relevant date last season was 16 March. A 3-1 defeat at Southampton left Liverpool 29 points from the top with 24 to play for. There have been only two occasions, in 1993 and 2005, when it has come round more quickly, and by a point each time. Yet even last season it was clear Brendan Rodgers was putting in place a philosophy, and that possibly is the most striking difference with what has been seen at Old Trafford under David Moyes.
It is not just Liverpool's momentum that has been so significant this season, nor that they have overhauled Manchester City at the top of the scoring charts, but the sense of a clear system and plan. It is all about moving the ball quickly and with purpose, playing with control and penetration, and when it comes off, with Luis Suárez at the arrowhead of their attack, it is currently the most arresting sight in English football. All of the things United supporters once took for granted about their own team.
Ferguson was certainly mistaken when he wrote about Liverpool needing eight players to "return to the level of us". But Ferguson's judgment has been misguided a few times over the past year. In October, on the opening night of his book tour, his audience at the Lowry theatre were told there was absolutely no need to panic because "we are the only club who can come from behind to win that league, because of our history". Moyes had already lost three times – a bad start, the man who had picked him for the job conceded – but Ferguson clearly had no idea just how bad it would get. "Most importantly, our younger fans have grown up, and they don't even remember when Liverpool were successful," he added.
The awkward truth for United, Ferguson and Moyes is that there has been a 40-point swing in Liverpool's favour from the corresponding stage last year. Before this weekend's matches, United have given Chelsea 37, Arsenal 35, Everton 29, Manchester City 24 and Spurs 22. Chelsea have become a speck in the distance and José Mourinho, the manager Ferguson apparently considered inferior to Moyes, now stabs at United with public sympathy. "I feel sorry for them," he said recently, and it was an outstanding choice of weapon. The one thing a club of United's size and ambition can never want is a rival's pity.
At another club – certainly Chelsea and Spurs, and possibly City – the fact of modern-day football is that Moyes would have been fired by now. United pride themselves on operating to their own principles, and bravo to them if they still genuinely believe Moyes can do, perhaps, what Rodgers has done for Liverpool in his second season. Except it still makes no sense here – and it is a notable omission in Ferguson's autobiography – about what it was that led them away from Mourinho in the first place.
Some have argued it is because he would not have appreciated United's history of nurturing young players, and there is possibly something in that. But let's get our priorities straight. Mourinho may never have brought through his own golden generation but he has won seven league titles in four different countries, the Champions League with two clubs, the Uefa Cup, the FA Cup, two League Cups, the Spanish Cup, the Italian Cup, 20 different recognised manager-of-the-year awards and once went nine years without losing a home game.
Others have tried to argue that Mourinho is a master of the dull. Yet Internazionale were the leading scorers in his two seasons in Serie A. Real Madrid amassed 326 goals in his three years in La Liga, two higher than a Barcelona side revered as the most refined club team in history. In his first spell at Chelsea, Mourinho's team outscored United in year one. They finished level the following year and there were two seasons when Ferguson's teams were the more prolific. This season will even it up at two each.
So what else? Sir Bobby Charlton once said Mourinho "pontificates too much" and that his behaviour did not fit into the United way. Others will agree after the events at Villa Park Saturday night. But what about the last man? In Ferguson's time, he fell out with, or insulted, just about every authority and rival in the business. This is the man who wrote in his first autobiography he did not feel a "crumb of pity" when a sworn enemy at Rangers was diagnosed with cancer. Ferguson was abominable, frequently. He got away with it at Old Trafford because he was a trophy machine. Mourinho would have been the same: the closest there is in football to a guarantee of success.
Hypothetical now. Instead, Liverpool's fans have apparently made a banner in tribute to Moyes – "The Chosen One … thank God!" – and it is difficult to remember a time when United's supporters have had more reason to fret about this fixture since the early part of the Ferguson era.
Rodgers is sticking to the line that realistically Liverpool's pursuit of the championship will go into a 25th year. Yet he says that to lower expectation and remove any sense of coming up short, a la Gérard Houllier's "10 games from greatness" in 2002. Don't believe he necessarily means it. Liverpool still have Chelsea and City to play at Anfield and have consistently demonstrated themselves as credible challengers.
United, in stark contrast, have gathered more unwanted records this season than they will care to remember: their first home defeat to Newcastle since 1972, the first to Everton since 1992 and the first ever to Swansea. They have lost at Stoke for the first time since 1984 and West Brom's win at Old Trafford was their first since 1978. Last season, United had 71 points after 28 games, their highest at that stage in the Premier League era. This season is their lowest, with 48. The Europa League probably comes next. For a club of such stature, it is about as appealing as head lice.
The interesting part now is whether United's crowd can resist straying into mutiny if there are more grave disappointments. Either way, the recovery process is probably going to be more challenging than many people seem to realise.
Nemanja Vidic's end-of-season departure leaves a gaping hole, for starters. Rio Ferdinand is being eased into retirement and Patrice Evra's contract expires at the end of the season. United have spent much of the past year trying, and failing, to find another left-back. Now they may need two, as well as a couple of centre‑halves, even before they look at other areas of their squad, working out which players need upgrading, and whether Robin van Persie can be trusted when he says it is untrue he has thought about cutting himself free. Van Persie would probably not care to be reminded that he came out with a similar fan-friendly statement in his final season at Arsenal: "I am committed to Arsenal, and that's how it is, despite people making up stories" – and the problem with that kind of history is that it invites scepticism.
Mourinho, in the meantime, still peers down from the top of the league despite the jolt of defeat to Villa. You know the expression: like a man who goes into the garden so the flowers can smell him, rather than the other way round. Rodgers can do that look, too, and perhaps it is dawning on Ferguson that he was wrong about them both.
How many players do United need to add, or replace, before they are back to title-winning standard? At least five. Maybe as many as eight, ironically.
Talented but arrogant, it's too late for Bendtner to be whipped into shape
It feels like a long time ago since I sat opposite Nicklas Bendtner, in an upstairs room at Arsenal's training ground, and listened to his master-plan about establishing himself as one of the greats of his sport.
Bendtner gave the impression he probably shouted out his own name during sex. "In my opinion I don't know why anyone would question me," he said. "Trust me, it will happen. I look around at other players, I see my own ability and I can't see anything that tells me it won't happen. I'm sure people will think, 'What is he talking about?' But as I have done before, and will do again, I will laugh at those people when it is all done."
Anyone with this ego may just have to understand the shortage of public sympathy when everything unravels and all the boasts look incredibly empty. Yet the Bendtner story is still a sad one. No matter how much he over‑egged his own ability, he was still one of the bright young talents in the sport a few years ago. Sure, his arrogance was bound to rub up people the wrong way, but at 21 he was not the serial waster we see today and Arsenal, with their chronic over-reliance on Olivier Giroud, could have done with that driven, ambitious striker this season.
Instead, Bendtner's career has spiralled to the point that even Arsène Wenger, that fierce protector of his own, offers the clear impression he has given up on him. Bendtner's latest indiscretion, apparently threatening a taxi driver then unbuttoning his trousers, rubbing himself against the side of the cab and whipping the vehicle with his belt, took place in Copenhagen while his team-mates were being knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich.
It is part of a recurring theme of lost nights, often involving alcohol, and if Wenger struggles to conceal his disdain it is because he knows there is nothing quite so depressing in sport as talent going to waste. Bendtner, one suspects, will realise the same one day, though almost certainly too late.