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Gunners-Reds set to write new chapter
Two of the top teams England square off as Arsenal host Liverpool at the Emirates (live, Saturday, 10:30 a.m. PT). It’s the Reds’ toughest test to date, as they put the league’s deadliest offense up against a wounded Arsenal side looking to snap back after two home defeats.
Neither team really expected to be where they are, just two points apart atop the Premier League standings on the cusp of a quarter of the season gone. Liverpool sit third behind Chelsea only on dint of goal difference, and despite -- or even perhaps due to -- missing Luis Suarez to suspension for their first six league games, have looked a far more compelling and entertaining side than in years past.
It’s been argued that Suarez’ absence allowed this team to gel and gain confidence. This may be true, but with him, the fact is that Liverpool boast arguably the quickest and slickest offense available in Europe. The so-called “SAS” partnership of him and Daniel Sturridge is currently one of the game’s most compelling tandems. Sturridge, perhaps reading the back pages of the red tops, said this week that he and Suarez shared a “telepathic” bond, but hyperbole aside, it is difficult to downplay the connection these two men have shown when on the pitch and off the ball. Both men can play the creator and at their best -- see Liverpool’s 4-1 dismantling of West Brom last week -- they display an understanding that was difficult to imagine in the off-season when tales of Suarez’s departure (to Arsenal, as luck, his agent, or the press would have it) were inescapable.
Equally key to Liverpool’s success -- yet often overlooked -- has been the performance of keeper Simon Mignolet: the summer transfer replaced the fading Pepe Reina and immediately brought a stability long lacking to Liverpool’s defense. While the so-called “SAS” pairing has brought all the plaudits, Mignolet’s form has calmed what has been a dubious defensive unit. The Belgian’s penchant for the spectacular hasn’t hurt, either.
Arsenal have been one of the surprises of the season, their fine form sparked by the deadline day arrival of the silky Mesut Ozil. His introduction into the team has proved nothing short of electric, with Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud both transformed. At their best, the Ozil-led Gunners can be a dazzlingly fluent side, capable of turning the most jaded football fans into gibbering mush. Their 4-1 demolition of Norwich stands as a high point of this young year, and Jack Wilshere’s goal in that game will surely be up for strike of the season.
Arsenal, however, are still missing a few pieces: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott all remain absent due to injury and as the European games have bit, the Gunners have shown some signs of wobbling. Tuesday’s loss to Chelsea in the League Cup was damaging not only because it dented Arsenal’s chances of grabbing a piece of silverware, but because it exposed again the gulf in depth between themselves and the monied elite to their South. That aside, this Arsenal side has the look and feel of champions, and fans are salivating over what may happen if they can get all their players healthy.
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud has scored five goals in nine appearances compared to Luis Suarez's six goals in four matches this season (Image:WhoScored.com).
And make no mistake: this is a clash of the elite in England -- yet not since the fevered days of the late 1980s has this been the case. Saturday’s game brings back memories of a seminal period in modern football. That was when Liverpool and Arsenal traded punches and First Division titles against a backdrop of immense change in the game.
1989 was a pivotal and deeply damaging year for the sport. The Hillsborough Disaster hung over the game, and Liverpool in particular. All English teams were banned from European play after 1985’s Heysel disaster and would not return until 1990. Hooligans seemed to rule the terraces and the modern Premier League was still three years away from being a reality.
And yet, the final day of the 1988-89 season arguably changed English football.
On the 26th of May 1989, Liverpool and Arsenal met at Anfield with the title on the line: Arsenal needed to win by two goals; Liverpool had home advantage and were basking in the glow of having raised the FA Cup the previous weekend. Arsenal were 1-0 up but as the clock hit 90, it seemed the Reds had done enough.
But in the final minute, Liverpool’s legendary John Barnes coughed the ball up to Kevin Richardson, who restarted the play out of the back. Lee Dixon found Alan Smith, who in turn passed on to Michael Thomas. Thomas dribbled from midfield, evading Stevie Nicol and firing the ball through a despairing Bruce Grobelaar. The game was over. Arsenal had won, and would raise the title for the first time in 17 years. It was one of the most dramatic ends to a season anywhere -- not until I saw Manchester City replicate the feat against QPR in 2012, had I seen anything ever come close.
That match would inspire books and even a movie (Fever Pitch) but moreover, it would kickstart the English Renaissance in football. That game and the fervor it evoked proved for the first time the commercial power of televised soccer in Britain, and directly laid the foundations for the modern superstar game.
Which leads us to the here and now. It is possible that two star-studded lineups would meet Saturday at the Emirates without that game, but also not likely. Many will remember how the English sport could have instead turned the other way in those dark days, when it seemed that the terraces would never be welcoming, and never be safe.
Arsenal and Liverpool changed that then with a single stroke. On Saturday they have a chance to write a new chapter in a rivalry that has defined modern sport.
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