The international break is over and club football returns in earnest. As thoughts turn to the World Cup at that business end of the season, the Champions League takes centre stage for the next couple of months. The quarter-finals take place next week and there are some fascinating ties, none more so perhaps than Manchester City’s meeting with Liverpool.
Wednesday’s meeting is intriguing for a multitude of reasons. City’s only league defeat in 2017/18 so far was against the Merseysiders and their record at Anfield is appalling. Jurgen Klopp has also won more times (5) facing Pep Guardiola than any other coach and did so by taking the game to the champions elect in a way no other team has this year.
The all-English tie will evoke memories of the mid-to-late 2000s when Premier League sides were regularly drawn against each other. There was the Chelsea-Liverpool series which spawned a bitter rivalry, Liverpool-Arsenal in 2008, Manchester United-Arsenal and the United vs Chelsea final in Moscow.
Guardiola will be hoping to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2004 to Arsenal in a lesser recalled affair versus Chelsea. Arsene Wenger’s men were flying high at the top of the then titled Premiership, were 29 games unbeaten and on a nine match winning run.
For all their success domestically, they had it less of their own way in Europe. Drawn in a group with Lokomotiv Moscow, Dynamo Kiev and Internazionale, Wenger bemoaned the travel exertions to Eastern Europe that would potentially jeopardise any chance of winning the league title.
“The other English teams have more comfortable groups than we do. Sometimes the players pay a high price in the games that follow the Champions League matches.”
Their opening game defeat had nothing to do with any lengthy journey though, as they were thrashed 3-0 by the Italian giants on home soil – future Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins amongst the scorers. Following a frustrating 0-0 draw in Moscow, Arsenal were bottom of the table. The result forced Wenger into a rethink, abandoning his favoured 4-4-2 formation for the trip to Kyiv. It backfired spectacularly and they were on the wrong side of a 2-1 reversal which left them teetering on the edge of elimination just half-way through the group stage. They rebounded sensationally though, winning their last three matches including a famous 5-1 win at the San Siro and coasted past Celta Vigo in the last 16.
In the quarter-final, they were drawn against newly petrodollar fuelled city rivals Chelsea, much to the disappointment of vice-chairman David Dein. “One of the joys of playing in Europe is playing teams from overseas – and having played Chelsea three times, it is a bit anti-climactic.”
Heading into the tie, history was on Arsenal’s side. At this point, the Gunners were the undisputed top dogs in London. They had done the league double over Claudio Ranieri’s team and also knocked them out of the FA Cup. They had the the genius of Dennis Bergkamp, the domineering presence of Patrick Vieira in midfield, a rock solid defence, the guile of Robert Pires and Freddy Ljungberg, and in Thierry Henry they had the best player in the country.
Chelsea were still in the infancy of the Roman Abramovich era – possessing an array of new signings meshed with the old guard – so there was little doubting who the favourites were. In the summer of 2003 they went on an unprecedented £110 million spending spree, signing Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Claude Makelele and Adrian Mutu.
The first leg took place at Stamford Bridge in late March. The hosts took the lead through Eidur Gudjohnsen eight minutes into the second half, only for Pires to equalise soon after. Marcel Desailly was sent off in the final ten minutes, but Chelsea managed to hang on. Despite not extending their winning run, Wenger was still confident his side would go through.
“We have a good opportunity now and we really want to do it – to go for a 0-0 is a dangerous game. When they scored there was a 10-minute spell in which we needed to show character and patience, and to come back from 1-0 down is a good result for us.”
The return leg took place just days after Arsenal were beaten by United in the last four of the FA Cup, a game in which Henry was rested. The Frenchman was recalled to play alongside Jose Antonio Reyes and it was the Spanish forward who put them ahead. Lauren swung a cross to the back post which was headed back across goal by Henry, evaded Ljungberg before being buried by the former Sevilla man with the final kick of the half.
In control of the tie, Arsenal should have increased their lead but were shut out by a young John Terry and co. Infamously referred to as the tinker man, Ranieri removed Scott Parker and replaced him with Jasper Gronkjaer. The change worked and Chelsea grew into the game. Within six minutes, they were level. Jens Lehmann could only parry Makelele’s speculative volley from distance and Frank Lampard was there to pounce in typical fashion.
Both sides then had chances to go in front. Italian keeper Marco Ambrosio tipped over Kolo Toure’s 40 yard dipping volley, while Ashley Cole made an incredible goal-line clearance to deny Gudjohnsen on 85 minutes. 90 seconds later though, the visitors struck the decisive blow from an unlikely source. Left back Wayne Bridge marauded forward, played a perfectly crafted one-two with Gudjohnsen and calmly side footed into the corner in front of the delirious travelling support.
Afterwards, the cameras panned to Abramovich and his wife who were smiling from ear-to-ear. Under fire Ranieri was mobbed by his players and claimed that he was “mad with joy”. Just over a month later, he was sacked after losing the semi-final to Monaco and replaced by the eventual winning coach Jose Mourinho.
As disappointing as it was for Arsenal, they went on to create history by completing the entire league season unbeaten en route to reclaiming the league title. But there must still be a lingering regret among the team that they missed out on landing the ultimate prize. And with each passing year, Wenger must feel similarly.