Mini-series, like Arsenal v Liverpool or Manchester City v Chelsea, can take on a narrative, a momentum and a meaning that is all their own
These familiar clashes can become so all-consuming they do not help teams to win trophies
Friday 14 February 2014
Manchester City will be facing familiar opponents in the FA Cup this afternoon as they take on Chelsea, who beat them in the Premier League last week. So will Arsenal, facing Liverpool tomorrow, just six days after they conceded five to them at Anfield. There will be a familiarity, then, as there always is when teams meet in quick succession in different competitions.
That familiarity, though will itself be familiar: six years ago Arsenal and Liverpool met three times in six days. In 1980, they famously played five times in three weeks, in the FA Cup and in the league. These series can develop a narrative of their own, but do they swing one way to the other, or work on the basis of accumulated edge and advantage?
The last time Liverpool and Arsenal met like this Arsenal had been mounting a strong title challenge, but had slipped in February and by early April they were six points behind leaders Manchester United. But they were still third, one place ahead of Liverpool, who were going nowhere.
The first leg of a Champions League tie at the Emirates ended 1-1, with Dirk Kuyt equalising just three minutes after Emmanuel Adebayor had put Arsenal ahead. Arsenal had the better of the game and could have had a penalty, but were left in a weak position. Three days later they hosted Liverpool again in the Premier League and again drew 1-1. Back then, to Anfield, for the second leg and still the two teams could not be broken apart. With five minutes left it was 2-2, with Arsenal set to advance on the away goals rule. What it took, then, to separate them, in the final minutes, was a collision between Kolo Touré and Ryan Babel, a penalty scored by Steven Gerrard and then another goal from Babel in added time to seal the result.
It was another player who has represented both Arsenal and Liverpool – Ray Kennedy, even more legendary than Kolo Touré – whose mistake finally separated the two teams on their five-game marathon in 1980.
The first meeting, on 12 April, an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, was a 0-0 draw. This prompted a replay at Villa Park four days later, in which David Fairclough gave Liverpool the lead before Alan Sunderland equalised for Arsenal. Three days after that, quite naturally, there was a First Division match and once more the sides could not be separated: another 1-1 draw. The second replay, back at Villa Park, again finished 1-1. Sunderland had scored in the first minute and Kenny Dalglish in the last but official pleas for a penalty shoot-out fell on deaf ears.
The final game, the third replay, was at Highfield Road. Bob Paisley, the Liverpool manager, had been warning all series about “Osborne, the lad from Ipswich”. He meant, of course, Brian Talbot, who finally broke the unbreakable deadlock after a slip from Kennedy. The Liverpool veteran failed to clear, Frank Stapleton crossed and Talbot headed in. But it was a pyrrhic victory for Arsenal. They were so drained by their efforts against Liverpool that they lost to Second Division West Ham United in the final, and to Valencia, on penalties, in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final.
That is one of the more intriguing elements of these series – as Arsenal must know – that they can become so all-consuming in themselves that they do not always help teams win trophies. One of the best double-headers of our generation came 10 years ago, as Manchester United triumphed over Arsenal. It is the Invincibles, though, who live on in history.
Arsenal were hosting United in the Premier League in March 2004, six points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand. Thierry Henry put them 1-0 up but, trying to protect their lead, Arsène Wenger withdrew Fredrik Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes for Gilberto Silva and Pascal Cygan, and United seized control in the final minutes, having thrown on Louis Saha. He scored the equaliser at the death, United had the momentum and Ruud van Nistelrooy nearly won it in added time.
This meant that when the teams met in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park one week later it was United’s inferior team who had the mental edge. Arsenal were distracted by their Champions League quarter-final with Chelsea, coming up three days later, and Wenger rested Henry, starting Jérémie Aliadière instead. Arsenal struggled to create, Paul Scholes scored the only goal and United won, effectively defending the uniqueness of their treble. Arsenal went on to win the league.
Sometimes the cups are consolations. Manchester United were involved in a thrilling trilogy against Leeds United in 1991-92, as the two best teams in England met three times in three competitions in 18 days. Manchester United were flying going into their First Division match at Elland Road, two points clear at the top after seven straight wins. Neil Webb volleyed them into the lead but a late penalty from Mel Sterland earned Leeds a draw.
In the Rumbelows Cup quarter-final, again at Elland Road, Gary Speed put Leeds ahead before Manchester United surged back. Clayton Blackmore curled in a brilliant 35-yard free-kick before an 18-year-old Ryan Giggs started to run the game, sliding in Andrei Kanchelskis for the second before finishing off a move he had started for the third.
Alex Ferguson’s side had the momentum going into the third match, an FA Cup third-round match, again at Leeds, a tie the Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson, called “absolutely amazing”. Leeds had more of the game but Mark Hughes headed in a Giggs cross and Leeds were out. That series, then, was a red-rose rout, but Ferguson’s side collapsed in the league and Leeds won it. United took the League Cup instead. For the four top teams competing in seeming rematches this weekend, defeat may not signal the end of their season.
These sequences are rare phenomena but at the top level they can provide a new level of tactical challenge. Perhaps the finest ever football series was that between Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona team and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, over four games in three weeks in 2011. Barcelona won the Champions League semi-final but Madrid won the Copa del Rey final.
“When you play as many times against each other,” Guardiola reflected afterwards, “it becomes like the basketball play-offs. You do one thing, they respond with another, you answer in another way. The guessing, the changing, the preparing: that is what makes football enjoyable, what gives meaning to everything.”
1. Suarez currently misfiring
No manager would admit to running a one-man team and so it was no surprise this week when Brendan Rodgers said he was “building something that is not reliant on one player”. Indeed, Luis Suarez has scored just one of Liverpool’s last 17 goals. How good will they be when he starts scoring again?
2. Cissé still chases the dream
At Bastia today Monaco’s Joao Moutinho, Eric Abidal and James Rodriguez will face another player with a World Cup dream. Djibril Cissé, now 32, has not played for France since 2011. Cissé scored for Bastia on Tuesday as they won 3-1 at Toulouse and another high-profile goal today could further his case.
3. Rangers ready to gamble
The precarious situation at Loftus Road is underlined by the fact that, even with the quality and experience in the Queen’s Park Rangers squad, they are prepared to take a risk on West Ham’s Ravel Morrison. Rangers could find themselves six points behind second place when they host Reading tomorrow.
4. Early advantage to Bayern
As Arsenal face Liverpool tomorrow, their Champions League opponents Bayern Munich will be recovering from this afternoon’s far gentler home game against Freiburg. Arsène Wenger has complained before that English clubs are not helped by TV schedules before big European games. You can see his point here.
5. Lambert takes his chance
Dani Osvaldo’s moment of madness might have saved Rickie Lambert’s World Cup dream. The England striker had his opportunities at Southampton impeded by the Italy international. But, now Osvaldo has been expelled, Lambert is first choice again, giving him a good run of games to make his case.
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