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Apr 26, 2012

Title clashes

The Manchester derby is expected to have a decisive impact in crowning the champions of England this season, so here we look back through the history books to pick out a selection of crunch matches between title rivals.

Aston Villa 5-0 Liverpool (April 29, 1899)

Under the long-serving secretary-manager George Ramsay, Aston Villa had dominated the late 19th century, winning the league in 1894, 1896 and 1897 and the FA Cup in 1887, 1895 and 1897. In the 1898-99 season, they faced stiff competition from Liverpool, with the two teams battling it out, neck and neck, at the top of the newly expanded First Division from mid-January onwards.

Come the final day, they were level on 43 points, Villa holding top spot by virtue of a minute difference in goal average, and the fixture list had pitted the two against each other at Villa Park. As the Liverpool Mercury reported at the time: "Excursions from Liverpool were extensively patronised, and the excitement in the Midlands was of even greater proportions, over 40,000 spectators being present at the start." The Liverpool Echo said there was "almost painful anxiety and interest" in the match.

As it turned out, it was a landslide. Villa opened the scoring on four minutes and were 5-0 up by the break, and though the visitors hit the crossbar in the second half, the match - and any hope of taking the title - was clearly beyond them.

Aston Villa 4-2 Manchester United (April 22, 1911)

By 1911, Manchester United had emerged as a financial powerhouse. They had benefited from significant investment that not only prevented the club, under its original name of Newton Heath, going into liquidation but also brought the arrival of big-name players like Billy Meredith and Sandy Turnbull. Having won the title for first time in 1908 and the FA Cup in 1909, they moved to the spectacular Old Trafford stadium in February 1910.

The biggest challengers to their supremacy at the time were Aston Villa. Following the final-day success of 1899, Villa had added further league titles in 1900 and 1910, seeing off reigning champions United 7-1 on the way to the latter success.

Throughout the second half of the 1910-11 season, United had held first place in the table while Villa remained a constant threat in second. On April 22, with Villa having three games remaining and United just two, the teams met at Villa Park in a game that was to decide the destination of the title.

A record crowd of 55,000 attended what was described as "an unpleasant game" in the Daily Mirror. United, without captain Charlie Roberts, succumbed to a 4-2 defeat in a match that included three penalty kicks, while Villa's George Hunter and United's Enoch West were sent off. The result left Villa, with a game in hand, top of the table on goal average.

However, Villa failed to win either of their final two games - drawing with Blackburn before losing to Liverpool - to allow United to claim the title by a single point with victory over Sunderland.

Preston North End 2-0 Arsenal (April 25, 1953)

Arsenal were two points clear of third-placed Preston going into their penultimate game of the 1952-53 season and, with a superior goal average and second-placed Wolves having only a game to play, the Gunners knew that a draw would hand them the title.

However, with the great Tom Finney producing an inspired performance, Arsenal crashed to a 2-0 defeat in Lancashire that, in the view of the Guardian's reporter, "shook them badly". Arsenal still led the table on goal average, but Preston went two points clear with a 1-0 victory over Derby in their final game. The Gunners, then, would have to win their final game against Burnley two days later to clinch the championship.

In front of a 51,000-strong crowd at a semi-waterlogged Highbury, Arsenal fell behind to Burnley before putting three past Clarets goalkeeper Des Thompson - the brother of Preston 'keeper George Thompson. Burnley pulled a goal back for 3-2 with half an hour to play but, despite several anxious moments, the hosts managed to hold onto a victory that saw them clinch the title on goal average.

West Bromwich Albion 0-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers (April 3, 1954)

A Black Country derby ultimately saw West Brom surrender the title initiative to their fierce rivals. Having spent the best part of three months atop the table, West Brom - shorn of six first-team regulars due to injury - put up a brave fight but lost 1-0 at The Hawthorns to allow Wolves to draw level on points. The Baggies then picked up only one win and a draw from their final five matches as Wolves finished four points clear to take the title.

Chelsea 1-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers (April 9, 1955)

In their early years, Chelsea developed a reputation for failure. They spent big money and attracted big crowds but, as they failed to win any silverware in their first 50 years, their constant disappointments saw them become the target of music hall jokes. Even their own fans would mock the players while cheering for visiting stars like Stanley Matthews.

With the arrival of manager Ted Drake in 1952, though, the club underwent an image change, shedding the 'Pensioners' nickname, signing more reliable players, changing their training methods and imploring the crowd to show support for the team. In the 1954-55 season, Drake's work paid off.

Having been fifth in the table in early March, the Blues went top with a run of three wins from their next four games, and they remained there as they prepared to welcome defending champions Wolves with four games of the season remaining. Stan Cullis' side were trailing by five points but, with three games in hand on Chelsea, a victory would put them firmly in the driving seat.

However, it was Chelsea who secured the win, triumphing 1-0 courtesy of a 75th-minute John Sillett penalty after Billy Wright punched a Seamus O'Connell shot over the bar, and in their next game the Blues claimed a 0-0 draw at third-placed Portsmouth.

The following week, Chelsea - in their Golden Jubilee year - clinched their first title with a 3-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. "I've been waiting for them to win the league all these years," one elderly supporter told The Guardian, "and they go and do it like this."

Manchester United 1-3 Manchester City (March 27, 1968)

While this Manchester derby did not appear to carry quite the gravity promised by the forthcoming 2011-12 meeting given that the teams each had ten games left to play, and were second and third at the time of the meeting, it was an encounter that ultimately proved decisive.

City won the game 3-1 to move second - level on points with both Leeds United in first place and Manchester United in third - and went on to finish two points clear of their city rivals at the top of the table. The encounter was covered in the First XI Manchester derbies.

Liverpool 0-0 Leeds United (April 28, 1969)

As Don Revie stood on the brink of taking Leeds from the depths of the second tier to the First Division title, only Bill Shankly's Liverpool could derail his dream. With two games of the 1968-69 season remaining, Leeds held a five-point lead over the Reds, who had a game in hand. The equation was simple: avoid defeat at Anfield, and Leeds would become champions of England for the first time in their history.

Before a crowd of 53,750, Leeds held strong in the face of what The Guardian's Eric Todd called "remorseless, pitiless pressure" to emerge with a goalless draw that saw them crowned the new kings of England.

Leeds and Liverpool were fierce rivals at the time, but Revie sent his players to face the home fans in the Kop. After an initial silence, the home fans joined in the chant of "champions, champions, champions" and applauded their vanquishers. Afterwards, as Revie's son Duncan said in the book Revie: Revered and Reviled, Shankly entered the away dressing room and told the Leeds players: "We have not lost the title, you have won it, and you're the best team in the country."

Leeds United 1-0 Arsenal (April 26, 1971)

The finale to the 1970-71 season was filled with memorable twists and turns. Don Revie's Leeds had led the table from the opening day, but they ceded top spot to Arsenal with a 2-1 defeat to West Brom when referee Ray Tinkler famously took the law into his own hands to allow a goal that, by the laws of the time, was offside (as discussed in the First XI bad decisions).

Revie was furious, particularly as Arsenal's 1-0 win over Newcastle that day put them level on points with two games in hand. By the time of their trip to Elland Road, they were a point clear with three games to play, while the hosts had only two matches remaining. To have any realistic hope of winning the title, Leeds needed the victory. They got it, albeit with a touch of irony: Jack Charlton scored the only goal of the game from an offside position in the 88th minute.

Both sides won the games that followed, and so Arsenal would have to win their game in hand at the home of their arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur. As manager Bertie Mee had said, though: "We may have to win at Tottenham to become champions, but what better place to do it?" Their 1-0 win that day - described in First XI North London derbies - went down as one of the sweetest days in the Gunners' history.

Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal (May 26, 1989)

It is perhaps the most dramatic moment English football has ever produced. A game that had been scheduled for April 23 was rearranged for late May following the Hillsborough disaster, and the result was that the final match of the 1988-89 season would decide the title.

Liverpool, who had beaten Everton in the FA Cup a week earlier, went into the game with a three-point advantage and a goal difference superiority that meant the Gunners could only overtake them at the summit if they won by at least two goals. To label Arsenal the underdogs would be an understatement, but manager George Graham told his players: "All the pressure is going to be on Liverpool. They will not be able to breathe out there for the weight of expectancy."

He was right, and Liverpool were struggling to play their usual passing game, but at half-time the score remained 0-0. During the break, as striker Alan Smith recalled in Jason Cowley's The Last Game, Graham was looking to "make sure we didn't start to panic ... He sent us back out on to the pitch feeling enormously confident".

Smith made the breakthrough in the 52nd minute, glancing home from a free-kick. Liverpool protested furiously, but as a dignified Kenny Dalglish said after the final whistle: "I don't really know why the players protested. Someone said they saw a flag but I didn't." The players were furious, but a 1-0 defeat would suffice. As the game entered its dying moments, Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon was seen exhorting his team-mates: "One minute. Only one minute."

In the 91st minute, Smith collected a long pass from Lee Dixon, held the ball up and helped it on to Michael Thomas, who miscontrolled but regained possession thanks to a kind bounce from Steve Nicol. He raced through on goal, pursued by red shirts, before lifting the ball over goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and into the net. "It was just devastating," McMahon later recalled. "If we'd had to win the game, we would have. It happened because we didn't have to win to be champions."

Almost with the last kick of the game, Arsenal had overtaken Liverpool and inflicted agony on a club already plunged into the depths of misery. Even so, the Liverpool fans, as against Leeds two decades earlier, remained in their seats to applaud the new champions.

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester United (April 16, 2003)

The arrival of Arsene Wenger in North London ensured clashes between Arsenal and Manchester United regularly took on titanic significance in the title race, and 1-0 victories at Old Trafford had played a key role in the Gunners winning the Double in both 1998 and 2002.

The meeting at Highbury in 2002-03 was perhaps more tantalising, though, for it presented a genuine opportunity for the winners to tip the balance of the title race in their favour: United, with five games to play, were three points clear of Arsenal, who had a game in hand.

The mind-games between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson were rampant. Arsenal had seen an eight-point lead over their rivals wiped out and, with Ferguson having suggested the Gunners were "too cocky", he felt - despite Wenger's claims to the contrary - that the verbal warfare had paid off. "I'm not interested in whether people think it has worked," Ferguson said ahead of the game. "I just wanted to get within touching distance of them so that we had a chance of going to Highbury to do something. I have got my wish. We are going there with a significant opportunity to take pole position in the race."

What transpired was a thrilling 2-2 draw in which Ruud van Nistelrooy's fine solo opener was overturned by a Thierry Henry double before Ryan Giggs levelled in the 63rd minute. Towards the end, Sol Campbell was sent off for an elbow on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The result, though far from conclusive, prompted celebrations from the United manager. His apparent confidence proved well-placed: Arsenal won only one of the three games that followed and ended the season five points off the top.

Manchester United 1-2 Chelsea (April 3, 2010)

Though many felt it was not a vintage side, Manchester United were in pole position to defend their Premier League crown when Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea visited Old Trafford at the start of April 2010: after a five-match winning run, the Red Devils were a point clear at the summit.

By the final whistle, though, Chelsea had seized the initiative as a match filled with controversy saw the Blues win 2-1. Joe Cole flicked home the opener on 20 minutes before Didier Drogba - from a clearly offside position - made it 2-0 with 11 minutes to play. Federico Macheda reduced the arrears soon afterwards, but United could not find an equaliser.

Macheda had appeared to use a hand in the scoring of the United goal, but that did nothing to diminish Sir Alex Ferguson's ire post-match. "That's twice we've been beaten by refereeing decisions - it happened at Stamford Bridge as well," Ferguson said, referencing a 1-0 defeat the previous November. "The linesman is right in front of Drogba and he gets it wrong. It was a poor, poor performance from the officials in a game of this magnitude."

He labelled Chelsea the Premier League favourites - "We can win all our remaining five games and we still won't win the title if Chelsea win theirs" - but Ancelotti refused to take the bait. "We are not favourites," the Italian said. "We are top of the league but nothing is decided yet." Both sides won all but one of their remaining games as Chelsea finished a point clear at the top.

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