It’s one of the most memorable quotes in football history. Sir Alex Ferguson was forthright about his biggest achievement: “My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their perch.” An expletive underlined his relish; the problem is that the statement is not true. By the time Ferguson’s Manchester United began winning titles, Liverpool were already in decline. The team that has the most justification in claiming to have ended Anfield’s era of dominance is Arsenal.
When the teams meet Friday night at the Emirates, it represents a renewal of one of the great, understated rivalries in football. Arsenal and Liverpool have been involved in a number of monumental clashes. The Gunners have, more often than not, come out on top.
Arsenal’s 2-0 victory at Anfield in May 1989, when a last-minute goal took the title out of Liverpool’s hands and brought it to north London, is one of the iconic matches in the English game. The fixture, which took place only weeks after the Hillsborough tragedy, has spawned books and films. Kenny Dalglish’s side, emotionally drained in the aftermath of a disaster that killed 96 Liverpool fans and exhausted after playing eight games in 23 days, succumbed to a last-gasp Michael Thomas goal that gave the away side the title on goal difference.
Yet Arsenal had been emerging as the most serious challengers to Liverpool’s hegemony in the late 1980s. George Graham’s side beat the Merseyside club 2-1 in the 1987 League Cup final, a significant moment. It was the first time that Liverpool lost a game in which Ian Rush scored. They had not been beaten in 144 matches in which the Wales international hit the net.
By the early 1990s, Arsenal had developed into a team to be reckoned with. Although Liverpool bounced back to win the league in 1990, the last time they were English champions, the north London club regained the title the following season. Anfield’s era of domination was over without any input from Ferguson and United.
Over the decades, Arsenal have inflicted a number of disappointments on the Merseyside club. They have twice beaten Liverpool in FA Cup finals: 1950 and 1971. The sight of Charlie George lying flat on his back in the Wembley sun after securing a 2-1 victory (and the double) for the Gunners in 1971 is one of the most iconic images in the national stadium’s long history. The two sides also faced off in a mammoth, four-game semifinal in 1980. The north Londoners emerged triumphant with a 1-0 victory at Highfield Road in Coventry after draws in the first game at Hillsborough and two replays (with extra time) at Villa Park.
Clashes between the clubs have frequently taken on epic proportions, but it has not always been one-way traffic. In the 2001 FA Cup final, Arsene Wenger’s first great side that included Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, Ashley Cole and Dennis Bergkamp (on as a late substitute that day) outplayed Liverpool comprehensively in Cardiff. They led with seven minutes to go, only to be beaten 2-1 by a Michael Owen brace as Gerard Houllier’s side responded with a classic sucker punch.
More recently, the teams have produced even more memorable contests. In 2009, Wenger’s side helped derail Liverpool’s title challenge with a breathtaking 4-4 draw in front of the Kop. Andrey Arshavin scored all four goals for the visiting side in a see-sawing match that included a last-minute equalizer for the home team.
In the past two years, games between the clubs have been equally free-scoring, but Liverpool have had a defined upper hand. The past four meetings have produced 21 goals: Jurgen Klopp’s team won 4-3, 3-1 and 4-0 with the remaining game ending in a 3-3 draw. The match at the Emirates could have a crucial bearing on the battle for Champions League places; a scoreless draw is unlikely.
Ferguson was right in identifying Liverpool as United’s greatest rivals, but Arsenal played a much more significant role in ending Anfield’s glory years. Their two titles, either side of Liverpool’s last table-topping season, represented the real changing of the guard. Graham’s team did not kick on, though they did win three more cups under their iconic manager.
The Premier League era started without a dominant team in the league, though Ferguson and United filled the vacuum. Since then, relations between Old Trafford and Anfield have become increasingly bitter. The relationship between Arsenal and Liverpool does not have anywhere near the spite, but it is no less keenly contested.
There is invariably drama when the two sides collide, and though it has not had an impact on the title for some time, it remains one of the great rivalries in the Premier League.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.