Merseyside, North London derbies highlight Premier League weekend
If you like local derbies, you’ll love this Saturday in the Premier League. It kicks off with Arsenal at Tottenham and ends with Liverpool making the even shorter trip – just a few hundred grassy yards across the famous Stanley Park – to Everton. And even Steven Gerrard’s last experience of the Merseyside collision before crossing the Atlantic (or so we are told) is overshadowed by what might happen in North London.
There’s been a lot of Gerrard in the media since he announced an intention to try MLS after the end of this English season. It’s natural, for he has almost godlike status among Liverpool fans and is well respected among others, including many of the Chelsea fans whose chants still taunt him for the error perceived to have all but cost Brendan Rodgers’s team the Premier League title last season. But we do tend to go in for rather long and elaborate goodbyes in this country and so it was no surprise the other day to see the sarcastic tweet, based on a movie poster, billing the Merseyside derby as ‘’about Liverpool and Steven Gerrard … and nobody else’’.
OK, so the former England captain and this once-friendly feud go back a long way. Gerrard has played in 32 derbies, won 17 and lost only 5, scored 10 goals – and contested the games so furiously at times that I had to check the stat that he’s been red-carded only twice. The rivalry won’t be the same without him. But I’m not sure it has seen the last of him, for Gerrard makes no secret of an interest in being loaned back to his one and only English club next season. And, of course, there’s the possibility of his returning to join the coaching staff.
Five places and 12 points, though, separate Liverpool from Roberto Martinez’s generally disappointing Everton. It’s a lot closer between Spurs and Arsenal. So close that, if the home side, really beginning to gel under former Southampton coach Mauricio Pochettino, beat Arsene Wenger’s men, they will move above both them and Southampton into fourth place (at least until the Saints, now under Ronald Koeman, have finished their subsequent game at Queens Park Rangers).
That would be a major development. It would open the way for Spurs to snatch the fourth Champions League place from under the noses of their neighbors, who are rightly proud of having qualified for Europe’s top competition in every season since the turn of the millennium. Manchester United, currently third, would also be threatened by a continuation of the bright form that has seen Spurs qualify for a Capital One Cup final against Chelsea, whom they recently beat 5-3 in a dramatic League game at the Lane.
But the politics of North London soccer are what makes this clash special -- because Arsenal are accustomed to being top dogs. In each of the past 19 seasons, since just before Wenger’s arrival in the autumn of 1996, they have finished above Spurs in the League. The biggest margin was at the end of one of Arsenal’s title seasons, 2003/4, when 45 points separated the clubs, and 11 times the gap has been of more than 20 points, but of late it’s been a little narrow – just one point the season before last, under Andre Villas-Boas, and the season before that, when Harry Redknapp was in charge.
Last season, with Gareth Bale being badly missed, saw Villas-Boas go, to be followed a few months later by successor Tim Sherwood, but Pochettino seems to offer hope of a measure of the stability to which Arsenal are accustomed. The Argentine has been especially successful in redesigning the sharp end of the team, where goals are flowing from young English center-forward Harry Kane – an apparent certainty to be promoted to the senior national squad for next month’s friendly against Italy in Turin – and Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen. The defense is a work in progress, owing much to the habitual brilliance of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, but overall Spurs go into this derby with a lot more hope for the future than usual.
Not that Arsenal are greatly depressed either; Wenger’s men are on a five-game winning run that features a 2-0 victory at Manchester City, which was all the more heartening for the memory of how they failed away to all the other top sides last season, going down 6-3 at the Etihad, 5-1 at Liverpool and 6-0 at Chelsea. Mind you, for the most recent trip to Manchester, Arsenal did kick-off at 4 p.m. local time. A minor detail? I’m not sure.
For the thrashings at City, Liverpool and Chelsea last season had one factor in common. They kicked off at lunchtime, 12:45 to be precise. And, at Anfield in particular, Arsenal were almost like sleepwalkers, dwelling on the ball, conceding twice to Martin Skrtel set-pieces in the first 10 minutes and twice more in the next 10. By the time they woke up, the game was virtually over. There was clearly something wrong with their preparation. With later starts, Arsenal tended not to be humiliated.
But has Wenger now attended to the 12:45 problem – whatever it was, sleep schedules or otherwise – and did the Etihad triumph prove it? We may be about to discover, for it’s a 12:45 kick-off locally on Saturday, and Spurs will be up for it.