Manchester United came off the pitch after a 5-1 victory over Newcastle at the end of February 2008 three points behind league leaders Arsenal.
“We’re scoring a lot of goals and, you never know, it could be an issue. We just want to make sure that, if it goes to goal difference, our own tally is good,” Sir Alex Ferguson told The Guardian after the game.
By the end of the season, United had won the league, finishing two points above Chelsea with Arsenal falling to third place. If it had come down to goal difference, though, Ferguson’s side had a 19-point lead. United were victorious in a season where Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth finished sixth, seventh and eighth respectively.
But something happened that summer which would change the course of the Premier League’s modern history: Manchester City, the team who finished ninth, directly below the three clubs, were sold to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan and his Abu Dhabi United Group.
Fast forward five seasons, and we come to the year City won their very first Premier League title. A trophy claimed on goal difference ahead of Manchester United.
It was Ferguson’s worst nightmare realised. Not only was he beaten by the Noisy Neighbours from across the city, but it was done on goal difference. You could argue that United weren’t ‘beaten’, as such, just outscored. Mortally wounded by an eight-goal swing, the damage mostly inflicted in a 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford at the hands of a gleeful Manchester City.
Ferguson might have retired had he won the league that year, a piece of pure conjecture grounded only in the fact that such a galling defeat seemed to galvanise the lionheart Scot to wrest the title back from City the following season before hanging up his chewing gum and watch.
His retirement, though, was another event that changed the Premier League’s history.
United are no longer the team who beat Chelsea in 2008. They are no longer the team who went into the 2009 Champions League final as favourites, only to lose to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and blow the chance to become the only team to win back to back Champions League titles. They are, however, in a situation which would give Ferguson sleepless nights. So is Pep Guardiola.
It is not because of their league positions, though that would probably be worrying, too. But because United find themselves four points off Liverpool in the final Champions League place, but with a 12 point deficit in goal difference. City, too, are only three goals better off than their cross-town rivals.
The Premier League table is severed at sixth place. United are only six points behind second-placed Arsenal: the top looks concertinaed. The only outlier is Chelsea, who look like they will have no need of goal difference at all this season.
If United’s goal is now a top four finish and re-entry into the Champions League for next season, it is a much more modest aim than Ferguson would ever have contemplated for his side in the Premier League era.
Sometimes in football, the same storylines come up again and again, as prophetically as they do ironically.
Ferguson’s insistence on winning the goal difference war just in case it came in handy at the end of the season was prudent in 2008. But he was stung by Manchester City in 2012. Will both Manchester clubs be on the wrong side of it this season?