Football is a game of fine margins, with entire seasons capable of turning on a matter of inches, seconds or a debatable refereeing decision.
We’ve often wondered how things might have turned out if just one call had been given the other way, or one tackle, shot or cross had been executed differently.
But rather than scratching our heads and bemoaning ‘what-ifs’, we’ve decided to imagine how these alternate timelines might have played out.
We begin with a subject close to the hearts of many an Arsenal fan, if no one else. What if Wayne Rooney hadn’t gone over for that penalty at Old Trafford in October 2004?
May 2008, Moscow
Kenny Dalglish feels a tap on his left shoulder and jolts awake.
He had hoped to get some shut-eye on the flight out to Russia. God knows he wasn’t going to get another opportunity.
The cold sweats had begun as soon as Chelsea won the second semi-final. It was tense enough when the teams met in the Premier League but in Moscow, on the biggest stage of all, and the Champions League final? He wasn’t sure he could take it.
Kenny didn’t have fond memories of the Luzhniki. He was going back for the first time since his Blackburn team got schooled by Spartak Moscow in 1995. It didn’t matter that Ray Harford was managing by then – they were his boys, and he felt to blame.
This was different, though. He was back in charge of Liverpool. Back where he belonged. There was nothing to lose, either – it was his first full season. No one expected them to get this far.
Looking back, he could barely believe they were even in this position. When he took over from Rafa Benitez in March they didn’t even look like making the top four. He couldn’t understand why that clown had been given so much time in the job.
Sure, there was that first season, with the Champions League quarter-final. But they were never going to get past Arsenal then. What was it? 70? 80 games unbeaten?
Liverpool isn’t a team that finishes outside the top four, though. Sure, Rafa had to deal with Steven Gerrard leaving for Chelsea, but that was three years ago now.
The pressure came because he knew this was their chance. Maybe their only shot. Arsenal hadn’t been the same since Wenger moved to Madrid, even if Tony Adams was doing a good job bringing through youngsters.
He knew as well as anyone else Seb Larsson and Fabrice Muamba were great talents, but they weren’t ready to challenge for titles just yet.
Next season might be different, though. Adams would have a full pre-season under his belt and Jose Antonio Reyes was only going to get better. That’s why Liverpool had to win tomorrow – they just had to.
The wait was almost over. Nine years. Nine long, title-less years.
Everyone knew Alex Ferguson had hoped to go out on a high, but people will look back on his record and he’ll still be the man who brought the Champions League back to Manchester. It wasn’t all bad.
And besides, it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time now. He had them playing the United way again, after all that time struggling for goals.
Finally they were over the Moyes years. Ole could understand why they brought him in when Ferguson retired in 2006. That Champions League run with Everton was genuinely impressive, and it was good to see the owners give him time to turn things around, but he was never right for United.
The way he ruined Ronaldo was the worst crime. They had an exciting youngster under Ferguson, even if the end-product wasn’t there, but he clearly took the Pienaar signing personally. Something changed in him – the lad felt he wasn’t being respected, and it showed.
It still hurts, watching him now. He’s too good for Benfica. He should be playing at a much higher level. Ole was sure of it. Maybe he could bring him back, but Ronaldo and Ravel Morrison in the same team? It was too much of a risk, and only one man would win that battle, even if he was just a teenager.
He’d developed a settled team in his two years in charge, and the time with the youth team helped. He didn’t want to make too much of it, but he was secretly sure that’s what helped him bring through Ravel and Paul Pogba to become the players they already are today.
No one thought United would even be in contention for a trophy this soon, let alone three points from the Premier League title with three games left, but when you have a reliable striker like Giuseppe Rossi, anything’s possible.
Three points. That’s all it would take. Ole led his players out of the Old Trafford tunnel to seal the deal. This was his destiny.
He’d always said ‘never go back’, but that was a decade ago.
Arsene Wenger had won everything there was to win in Madrid, and now Arsenal needed him.
It wouldn’t even matter if they didn’t win the league again, nothing could erase the memories of 2004 and 2005. An unbeaten season. A first ever Champions League title. Who knows where they’d be without his influence.
But since Adams left in 2009 it had been a real struggle.
Arsenal simply weren’t bringing through young talent any more, and when they did, they left.
Even after he left London, he kept in touch with the players he brought through. Would Real Madrid have won the Champions League and all those titles without Fran Merida? He doubted it, and he knew how lucky he was to bring him back over to Spain.
Watching Arsenal now was upsetting to him. As they fell 2-0 down at Old Trafford he couldn’t help but remember that game 12 years ago. The 50 not-out game.
What would have happened if Wayne Rooney went down under Sol’s challenge? That would have been 1-0 United. Would heads have dropped? Would defeat have knocked Arsenal?
Maybe they wouldn’t have won the Champions League that season. It seems ridiculous to think it all these years later, but it’s possible.
Arsene hates himself for thinking it, but he starts to wonder whether all that success was bad for the club. There was too much expectation for Adams, and he still thinks perhaps he should have been given more time.
Would they trade that instant glory for more enjoyable seasons in the long run? Maybe if that happened, Arsenal wouldn’t now be also-rans, destined to finish sixth or seventh every season.
But if that happened, maybe he wouldn’t be coming back to lead them back to where they were.