Ahead of United's trip to Anfield on Sunday, we look back at three previous times United have gone to visit that lot and come away with a win.
Liverpool 1-4 United, 17 December 1969
Wilf McGuinness' time in charge of Manchester United was not a happy one. Appointed as the natural, internal successor to Matt Busby, he spent most of his time flailing around in his predecessor's long, dark shadow and alienating nearly everybody in the dressing room. As Eamon Dunphy put it: "The torch had been passed on. Wilf grabbed the lighted end." But while nothing else went to plan, he at least found the time to oversee United's biggest win at Anfield to date.
It helped, of course, that Liverpool were feeling in self-destructive mood. After just ten minutes, Ron Yeats found himself off-balance and facing the wrong way while defending a corner; under no pressure at all, he sliced the ball into his own net. Though the home side squared things up fifteen minutes later, it was another corner that would prove decisive, and though this time nobody kicked it into their own net, the problem was that nobody kicked it all. The ball passed, unmolested, through the six yard-box and out the other side, then back in, at which point Ian Ure poked home. 2-1, and United were taking the points.
There wasn't much the home side could have done about the third or fourth: a deflection steered the ball to an unmarked Willie Morgan, then Bobby Charlton unleashed a Bobby Charlton special from the corner of the box. The result actually sparked something of a mini-revival for United, who went unbeaten for the next ten and clambered from midtable up to a high of fifth. But it was a false dawn: United finished eighth, then fell apart completely the following season, and McGuinness was gone just a year later.
Liverpool 1-2 United, 24 October 1981
This Sunday is Van Gaal's first journey to Anfield as United manager. Of those that have come before him -- going from after the war, at any rate -- only three have made off with a victory at the first attempt. Matt Busby, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and David Moyes all lost, while Frank O'Farrell escaped with a 2-2 draw.
Of the victors, we've already covered Wilf McGuinness above. Alex Ferguson left with a 1-0 win on Boxing Day 1986; Norman Whiteside doing what he did. The third — this 2-1 victory in October 1981 — belongs to Big Ron Atkinson. Except it really belongs to Arthur Albiston.
Jim White, among others, has made the point that United's managerial appointments tend to look like reactions to the previous failure. So if the clipped, muted Dave Sexton was a response to the ultra-exciting (on and off the field) Tommy Docherty, then Atkinson, bold and brash, was a reaction to Sexton. Certainly, it would be hard to think of two people less alike in personality. But Atkinson didn't just restore a bit of swagger to Old Trafford; he also, in his first season, immediately threatened to bring back the title.
United went to Anfield in third place; their opponents, the defending champions, were languishing in tenth. But this was still the Liverpool of Hansen and Lawrenson, Souness and Dalglish, Paisley and Grobbelaar. This was still the best team in England and one of the best Europe. And United, to quote Albiston, "battered them".
After Bryan Robson missed an excellent chance to notch his first United goal, Kevin Moran opened the scoring in front of the Kop, poking home after Grobbelaar palmed a Frank Stapleton header back into the six-yard box. Liverpool's keeper was having one of his more skittish days: twice he charged from his line and lost the ball, but United failed to extend their advantage. And though Liverpool came close through Souness and Dalglish, it took a penalty to tie things up. United's defenders felt it was harsh, and the papers agreed, though the TV commentator at the time thought he saw a push.
Enter Albiston. After Steve Coppell and Garry Birtles had efforts denied, and as the clock ticked towards the 90th minute, a clearing header landed at the feet of United's left-back, He later told Andy Mitten:
I'd already had a couple of shots which was unusual. This time I controlled it on my chest and was going to hit it, but then I changed my mind and played a one-two with Frank Stapleton. So I was back with the ball. I thought, 'Let's try something different here and not panic like you usually do.' I was on the edge of the box. I wanted to stay on my feet and win a penalty. Souness came in from the side so I shot. I slipped as I shot but the ball rolled into the corner. I should have done a Gary Neville and ran to the home fans to wind the Scousers up, but I ran straight to the away end.
And that was that. United went top, albeit having played a couple of games more than the chasing pack, and The Times' Stuart Jones started to get just a little bit excited about the promise of Atkinson's team:
It is an uncomfortable posture, sticking one's neck out when there is more than two thirds of the season to run. It would be wiser at this stage to ape the behaviour of the ostrich rather than the giraffe. Yet there is a heightening feeling at the end of this pen that, come next May, Manchester United will be crowned as champions for the first time since 1967.
Liverpool 0-1 United, 3 March 2007
Winning games deservedly is great fun. Winning games undeservedly, though, is significantly better: the joy is all the more intoxicating for being unexpected, and it's laced with delicious schadenfreude, the sweetness that comes from knowledge that out there, on the other side, they are feeling absolutely furious.
So while United have beaten Liverpool better and bigger than this, there will always be a special place reserved in tBB's heart for Cristiano Ronaldo's freekick, for Louis Saha's tiny touch, for Pepe Reina's fumble, and for John O'Shea's neat-as-you-like finish. Not to mention his celebration: while his chip against Arsenal was marked by a nonchalant shrug, this one gets a manic charge and some frankly weird hand gestures, and only ends when Mickael Silvestre attempts to remove his head. He looks like he might be about to burst into laughter or tears. Meanwhile, Ferguson unveiled some hip-thrusting bunny hops in the technical area, and Gary Neville leapt into Edwin van der Sar's arms. It was that kind of moment.
O'Shea, of course, was only on because Wayne Rooney had limped off, and while that looks like a hilariously defensive move, there was only Wes Brown on the bench as an alternative. In any case, as the clock ticked down, a draw would very much have done: Paul Scholes had been sent off for putting his hand near Xabi Alonso's face, Van der Sar had made a marvellous save to deny Peter Crouch, and United, frankly, had been a bit rubbish.
"Isn't that just the hallmark of champions?" asked the commentator. It was. And while the eventual gap at the top of the table was six points — meaning that these two weren't strictly crucial — this win meant that United had already sorted the title by the time the penultimate game of the season came round, away at Chelsea. Which meant two things. First, a gargantuan potential banana skin was rendered entirely irrelevant. And second, John Terry and company had to applaud onto the pitch Kieran Lee, Chris Eagles, and Dong Fangzhuo. More sweet schadenfreude. Thank you, John.