Friday, December 11, 2009

Liverpool vs. Arsenal 2009 Vintage; Not The 1989 Classic

On the 26th of May, 1989, Liverpool and Arsenal played in the final game of the most nail-biting league finish of all time. On Sunday, they meet in a match that is sadly just another in the calender year...

Liverpool was the dominant force in English football throughout the late '70s and '80s, and heading into the final fixture of the 1988/'89 season, they were three points ahead of the Gunners with a goal difference of +39 to Arsenal's +35.

In short, Arsenal had to travel to the Lions Den and beat the Reds by at least two clear goals to win the league.

A seemingly impossible task.

90 minutes later, the Gunners were up 1-0 and Michael Thomas raced into the box with only Bruce Grobbelaar to beat after shrugging off a last desperate challenge by Steve Nicol.

He guided the ball past the Zimbabwean shot-stopper and into the net, and George Graham's Arsenal were champions.

Between the late '80s and early '90s the two clubs were locked in titanic battles for the league almost every season. However, that was 20 odd years ago.

Liverpool went on to win the league the following year and claim some sort of redemption, but they have not won it since, a drought of 20 years. While Arsenal entered a golden era under Arsene Wenger and swept all and sundry before them.

20 years on from a night that is etched in football history forever, and the two of the greatest English clubs of all time go into battle in a match that means nothing as far as the title is concerned.

Liverpool's demise over the last 20 years has been dramatic. Despite a few dalliances with the title, most notably last season, they are not the force they once were.

Many factors have contributed to this downfall, too numerous to name, but this season's poor start has been shocking even by these lower standards.

Fingers have been pointed to injuries, to owners, to massive debts, to poor transfer dealings, and the manager.

But whichever way you add it up, Liverpool was out of the title race by November.

Arsenal's downward trajectory has been less dramatic than the Merseysiders, but their own five year drought has seen the pressure on Arsene Wenger mount.

Neither side is capable of winning the league this year, and have rarely been close over the last five years. So it is with with a heavy heart that we head towards Sunday's dead rubber for the title.

While league honours may not be on the line, the assault for third and fourth is most important.

Regardless of the Merseysiders poor start to the season, they have accumulated 24 points and sit in seventh position, within touching distance of fourth, while Arsenal currently occupies third on 28 points.

Of their last 14 matches, Liverpool have won three, drawn four, and lost seven. Thankfully, as far as the league is concerned, most of these defeats (and the wins) were in Europe, and as we stand the Reds are unbeaten in their last four EPL matches.

Arsenal still harbours a faint hope of challenging for the league, but the devastating defeat at the hands of a rampant Chelsea shows how far they are from being the ideal team. They are still "mentally weak" and need to improve in a number of areas before a realistic title tilt.

As far as the weekend is concerned, Liverpool will have a fully fit squad to choose from, while only Ryan Babel is doubtful.

Fernando Torres should start up front after playing 30 minutes against Fiorentina, while it still remains to be seen whether Rafa will give Alberto Aquilani a first Premiership start.

Benitez has already undermined his Italian acquisition by saying he was not ready for the physical battle against Blackburn last week, while the player and his father have claimed he has been fit to play for the last seven weeks.

If he does play, it will most probably be at the expense of Lucas, although Steven Gerrard may partner Mascherano in the middle while the ex-Roma player slots in behind Torres.

At the back, Benitez will have a full compliment to choose. Johnsen and Carragher are guaranteed to start, while Agger should partner the Liverpool native in the centre. Fabio Aurelio is expected to start instead of Insua as his greater experience could be key in dealing with the likely threat of Theo Walcott.

Liverpool has found the going tough against teams that have asked questions of them defensively this year, and have only won once in eight games against top half opposition, while they only beat lowly Debrechen in Europe.

However, this could be the ideal time to play against Arsenal.

The Gunners are in the middle of their own injury crisis at the moment, and badly lack a focal point up front as the absences of Robin van Persie and Niclas Bendtner are keenly felt.

Eduardo is still a doubt, so Andrei Arshavin may continue up front. The little Russian bagged four at Anfield last year so Liverpool's defence will be more than aware of the threat he possesses.

In the middle, Alex Song will return from suspension to support the sublime Fabregas and the only figuring Wenger will have to do is on who will come in—Nasri, Denilson, or Diaby. Walcott returned midweek and should start on the right.

With Clichy out, Armand Traore will fill in at left full, as Gallas, Vermaelen, and Sagna, complete the back four, with Almunia between the sticks.

Liverpool are slight favourites, as Arsenal has not beaten a fellow top four side in six attempts, and have not beaten Liverpool in the last five league matches.

It will be tight, but if there was ever a time for Liverpool to take on Arsenal it is this weekend.

Expect Liverpool to win a tense, tight affair.

In short, there is a game between two footballing giants on Sunday, that means nothing to the destination of the title.

It was once a game that the entire English footballing universe once tuned into, now it is fast becoming irrelevant to fans outside of London and Liverpool.