By Marc Serber
The Liverpool-Arsenal match is by no means a derby in the traditional sense. Rather, the foundations of the rivalry have been constructed on both teams’ success. Every match these days between England’s “big four” is labeled a derby, but this particular match was a rivalry long before the “big four” was ever established.
For many, the Liverpool-Arsenal fixture cemented itself as a permanent “derby” on the final day of the 1988-89 season. In the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, Arsenal came into Anfield needing to win by two goals in order to take the title away from a Liverpool side seeking its seventh title in 10 years.
A victory would only draw Arsenal level with the Merseysiders, but a two goal victory would hand them the title based on the tie-breaker for goals scored.
An Alan Smith header just after half-time gave Arsenal hope, but Liverpool looked like it was going to hold on. Only a last gasp finish by Michael Thomas saw Arsenal snatch the title from the jaws of Liverpool in the final seconds of the match.
Arsenal won its first title since 1971, edging out its northern foe in the closest title race in league history. A quick look at the history books shows that this is not the only time, however, that Arsenal and Liverpool finished first and second in the table (or second and first).
Nineteen years later, Andrew Cowie wrote in the Guardian’s Football Blog that although Liverpool recovered to win the title the following season, “the loss to Arsenal really did feel like the beginning of the end, a signal that a dominant team had lost its momentum and aura.”
Knockout football has also been a linchpin of the Liverpool-Arsenal rivalry.
The teams have met in three FA Cup Finals. Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners in 1950, and took the title again in 1971 when Charlie George scored the third goal of the extra period to give the Gunners a 2-1 win. 30 years on and Liverpool would get its revenge in 2001 when a certain Michael Owen scored in the 83rd and 88th minute to steal a 2-1 victory from Arsene Wagner’s side.
For many Liverpool fans the 2-1 victory was a bit of revenge for 1989 as Cowie articulates the sentiments of Liverpool fans by saying, “there was something Thomas-esque about Owen’s winner, both in style and timing...”
The two teams needed three Replays to decide who advanced to the 1980 FA Cup Final. Arsenal got the last laugh, finally winning 1-0, but fell in the final to London neighbors West Ham by the same score-line.
Just playing in England is not enough and the two sides met in the quarterfinals of the 2007-2008 UEFA Champions League. A 1-1 draw in London gave Liverpool the upper hand, but Arsenal looked to have the last laugh when Emmanuel Adebayor scored in the 84th minute at Anfield to tie the overall fixture at 3-3, giving Arsenal the advantage on away goals. Liverpool promptly marched down to the other end of the field and won a penalty which was duly converted by Mr. Liverpool himself, Steven Gerrard. Ryan Babble would add an insurance goal in stoppage time to knock the Gunners out of Europe and end a pulsating encounter which finished 5-3 on aggregate.
The teams have already met once this season albeit in the Carling Cup. Arsenal fielded its “kids” while Liverpool made 10 changes to the side that beat Manchester United the previous weekend. Despite the overhaul of the two sides, Arsenal ran out 2-1 victors in a very entertaining match.
The line-ups will be vastly different, but this weekend’s match may well feel like cup football.
Arsenal sits in third, eight points adrift leaders Chelsea and six points behind Manchester United. The Gunners have a game in hand, however, and need a win to keep pace with the frontrunners. With Arsenal and Liverpool the only match on Sunday, Arsenal will head into Anfield knowing whether or not Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City have either drawn level with or have overtaken them in the table.
Liverpool meanwhile is a club in crisis. The humiliation of not making the Champions League knockout stages was compounded by a 2-1 come from behind loss to Fiorentina. In addition, their scoreless draw at Ewood Park last weekend saw them slump to seventh in the table. While Aston Villa must face Manchester United, both Tottenham and Manchester City face relegation candidates, and Liverpool could very well head into Sunday’s match six points adrift of the Champions League places.
Liverpool and Arsenal drew both matches last year, but the pick of the two came at Anfield where Andrey Arshavin’s fourth goal in the 90th minute looked to settle a back and forth affair, only for Yossi Benayoun to steal a share of the spoils for the Reds three minutes deep into stoppage time.
Sunday’s match will again be at Anfield, and if it’s anything like last year’s match, you’ll be kicking yourself if you miss it.
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