Title clashes

The Manchester derby is expected to have a decisive impact in crowning the champions of England this season, so here we look back through the history books to pick out a selection of crunch matches between title rivals.
Chelsea's Terry and Mikel challenge Manchester United's Berbatov during an English Community Shield match at Wembley Stadium. Net photo.
Chelsea's Terry and Mikel challenge Manchester United's Berbatov during an English Community Shield match at Wembley Stadium. Net photo.

The Manchester derby is expected to have a decisive impact in crowning the champions of England this season, so here we look back through the history books to pick out a selection of crunch matches between title rivals.

Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal (May 26, 1989)

It is perhaps the most dramatic moment English football has ever produced. A game that had been scheduled for April 23 was rearranged for late May following the Hillsborough disaster, and the result was that the final match of the 1988-89 season would decide the title.

Liverpool, who had beaten Everton in the FA Cup a week earlier, went into the game with a three-point advantage and a goal difference superiority that meant the Gunners could only overtake them at the summit if they won by at least two goals. To label Arsenal the underdogs would be an understatement, but manager George Graham told his players: “All the pressure is going to be on Liverpool. They will not be able to breathe out there for the weight of expectancy.”

He was right, and Liverpool were struggling to play their usual passing game, but at half-time the score remained 0-0. During the break, as striker Alan Smith recalled in Jason Cowley’s The Last Game, Graham was looking to “make sure we didn’t start to panic ... He sent us back out on to the pitch feeling enormously confident”.

Smith made the breakthrough in the 52nd minute, glancing home from a free-kick. Liverpool protested furiously, but as a dignified Kenny Dalglish said after the final whistle: “I don’t really know why the players protested. Someone said they saw a flag but I didn’t.” The players were furious, but a 1-0 defeat would suffice. As the game entered its dying moments, Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon was seen exhorting his team-mates: “One minute. Only one minute.”

In the 91st minute, Smith collected a long pass from Lee Dixon, held the ball up and helped it on to Michael Thomas, who miscontrolled but regained possession thanks to a kind bounce from Steve Nicol. He raced through on goal, pursued by red shirts, before lifting the ball over goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and into the net. “It was just devastating,” McMahon later recalled. “If we’d had to win the game, we would have. It happened because we didn’t have to win to be champions.”

Almost with the last kick of the game, Arsenal had overtaken Liverpool and inflicted agony on a club already plunged into the depths of misery. Even so, the Liverpool fans, as against Leeds two decades earlier, remained in their seats to applaud the new champions.

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester United (April 16, 2003)

The arrival of Arsene Wenger in North London ensured clashes between Arsenal and Manchester United regularly took on titanic significance in the title race, and 1-0 victories at Old Trafford had played a key role in the Gunners winning the Double in both 1998 and 2002.

The meeting at Highbury in 2002-03 was perhaps more tantalising, though, for it presented a genuine opportunity for the winners to tip the balance of the title race in their favour: United, with five games to play, were three points clear of Arsenal, who had a game in hand.

The mind-games between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson were rampant. Arsenal had seen an eight-point lead over their rivals wiped out and, with Ferguson having suggested the Gunners were “too cocky”, he felt - despite Wenger’s claims to the contrary - that the verbal warfare had paid off. “I’m not interested in whether people think it has worked,” Ferguson said ahead of the game. “I just wanted to get within touching distance of them so that we had a chance of going to Highbury to do something. I have got my wish. We are going there with a significant opportunity to take pole position in the race.”

What transpired was a thrilling 2-2 draw in which Ruud van Nistelrooy’s fine solo opener was overturned by a Thierry Henry double before Ryan Giggs levelled in the 63rd minute. Towards the end, Sol Campbell was sent off for an elbow on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The result, though far from conclusive, prompted celebrations from the United manager. His apparent confidence proved well-placed: Arsenal won only one of the three games that followed and ended the season five points off the top.

Manchester United 1-2 Chelsea (April 3, 2010)

Though many felt it was not a vintage side, Manchester United were in pole position to defend their Premier League crown when Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea visited Old Trafford at the start of April 2010: after a five-match winning run, the Red Devils were a point clear at the summit.

By the final whistle, though, Chelsea had seized the initiative as a match filled with controversy saw the Blues win 2-1. Joe Cole flicked home the opener on 20 minutes before Didier Drogba - from a clearly offside position - made it 2-0 with 11 minutes to play. Federico Macheda reduced the arrears soon afterwards, but United could not find an equaliser.

Macheda had appeared to use a hand in the scoring of the United goal, but that did nothing to diminish Sir Alex Ferguson’s ire post-match. “That’s twice we’ve been beaten by refereeing decisions - it happened at Stamford Bridge as well,” Ferguson said, referencing a 1-0 defeat the previous November. “The linesman is right in front of Drogba and he gets it wrong. It was a poor, poor performance from the officials in a game of this magnitude.”

He labelled Chelsea the Premier League favourites - “We can win all our remaining five games and we still won’t win the title if Chelsea win theirs” - but Ancelotti refused to take the bait. “We are not favourites,” the Italian said. “We are top of the league but nothing is decided yet.” Both sides won all but one of their remaining games as Chelsea finished a point clear at the top.

 

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