It is March 2009 and Liverpool have just enjoyed the most memorable of weeks possible without winning a trophy. Real Madrid have been beaten 4-0 at Anfield, while just days later Manchester United were dismantled 4-1 at Old Trafford. The following week, their manager, Rafael Benitez, signs a new five-year contract to keep him at the club until 2014.
If anybody had suggested at that moment that four years later Benitez would be managing a match at Anfield but would actually be in the away dug-out as manager of Chelsea, the team that became his nemesis upon taking the Liverpool job in 2004, I would have wanted some of whatever they were smoking.
Yet when the Spaniard takes his Blues side to Anfield on Sunday, it is almost like we are living in some surreal parallel universe where Benitez and Brendan Rodgers, an ex-Chelsea man and disciple of Jose Mourinho, are managing the wrong teams.
Anfield would have been passionate enough this weekend post-Hillsborough anniversary and post-Thatcher death (let’s not go there), but the return of the man dubbed ‘Rafa the Gaffer’, with Chelsea of all teams, makes this the most peculiar match.
Benitez was deified by the Kop for winning the 2005 Champions League in his first full season at the club, and even if his six-year stint brought just one more trophy, the FA Cup in 2006, the affection that Liverpool fans still have for the man remains undimmed.
In fact, ask around Anfield on Sunday and although there are some who feel Benitez went as far as he could with the Reds, there will be a large contingent that would like to see the Spaniard return as manager in the summer.
The fans weren’t just enamoured with his on-field skills, which, a sorry final season in 2009/10 apart, made Liverpool as competitive as they have been since they last won the title in 1990: regularly reaching the latter stages of the Champions League, their haul of 86 points in 2008/09 was a Premier League record for the Reds.
It was also the way Benitez immersed himself into the ethos of the club and the area – his family still live on Merseyside – that endeared him to the Liverpool faithful and made it (almost) impossible to see him managing another English club, especially one from west London.
Of course, it is this reason why Chelsea fans hate him with such vengeance. Even without the famous European battles with Jose Mourinho, Chelsea and Liverpool are two clubs so diametrically opposed – both socially and economically – that moving from one to the other was never going to be easy for anybody, never mind for the man who was at loggerheads with those in SW1 for years.
The vitriol, which is now simmering rather than openly hostile as it was a few weeks back, is totally understandable.
Roman Abramovich should never have appointed a man who amounted to an affront to the fans and it means we have a bizarre situation where the manager in the away dug-out is loved by the home fans and detested by his own.
Quite how everybody involved reacts will be fascinating, but among all of this, a match will take place and even if it is a match that will play on everybody’s emotions, it is one that is of far more significance to Chelsea’s top-four hopes than it is to Liverpool and as such, the 5/2 on Rafa returning to haunt his old club has to be taken.
That price is huge, especially when you compare it to the 21/20 on Liverpool (the draw is 12/5). The Reds have been erratic all year but there are clear signs that with very little to play for – it is hard to see them finishing anywhere other than seventh now they sit six points behind Everton with just five games left – the Merseysiders have packed in for the season.
Consecutive 0-0 draws with West Ham and Reading were very poor results indeed and it means that Liverpool have now won just one of the last four, and I have no desire to back them at that price against a side as good, and motivated, as Chelsea.
Yes, the Blues have been inconsistent themselves as the games pile up and the team is rotated into the ground in order to keep everybody fresh – Benitez’s side have played 11 times in the last 38 days.
But the gap from Wednesday’s 3-0 win at Fulham to Sunday actually represents a chance for Chelsea to rest up, and the first-choice 11 the Spaniard can pick is far better than the one Rodgers can call upon.
And Chelsea are in decent enough form. Since ‘Rafa’s Rant’ (where have we heard that before?) at Middlesbrough, the Stamford Bridge outfit have won seven of their 12 matches, a run which includes a draw away at Manchester United and a defeat to Rubin Kazan that actually meant little in the grand scheme of things.
Liverpool have only won half of their 16 home games, and their four defeats is the worst record in the top seven. Chelsea boast the fourth-best away record in the division, and they have the tools to hurt the Reds on the counter attack, where Rodgers has struggled all season.
And if West Brom and Aston Villa have won at Anfield this year, why not Chelsea? Liverpool’s only win against a team in the top eight this season was a fortunate one against Tottenham Hotspur, and they don’t look ready to compete at the top level consistently enough.
But more than anything else, 5/2 is a big price for a Chelsea team that are infinitely superior to their hosts, and as such, you should be backing Rafa to get one over on his old club.