Monday, 19 April 2010
Welcome Return of the Derby Match
Blood. Thunder. Hammers. Tongs. Kitchen sinks. This season, verve and fervency have returned to Premier League derbies and, if anything, have been its only saving grace. The year as a whole has provided upsets as the rule rather than the exception and the title will certainly not go to a team that has played consistently fantastic football, regardless of who finishes top in May.
The Manchester derby at Old Trafford last September was probably the game of the season so far, though the Carling Cup semi-final encounters didn’t disappoint either. An influx of money and quality players has started to turn Ferguson’s Sauron-esque gaze away from Anfield and back towards Eastlands. Even under Sven, City were still the Premier League’s wry smile. Get some money, achieve a bit, but get thumped 8-1 by Boro’ on the last day. Beat United, home and away, but not cause too many ripples because United win the title and all is well with the world. ‘You enjoy your little victories, City’, gloated United fans, ‘because we will win the war’.
This time, however, the whole war will be condensed into 90 minutes and City have the monopoly on weapons. Ferguson reserves plenty of ire for his city rivals at the best of times, but will feel it all the more intensely now United’s season could meet its end at the hands of a club dormant for so long and a striker he chose not to retain. What probably nags at Ferguson is that deep down, he expected this to be his most glorious of years, the year in which he finally eclipsed Liverpool’s haul of titles; the year he won a league even without Cristiano Ronaldo. What he won’t have entertained is the locals not only getting ideas above their station, but finishing the season there too. This was never supposed to be City’s season of self-affirmation and their increasing belief will only be boosted by the evaporation of United’s, who have plenty to prove. With three classics already this season, my money is definitely on a fourth. Manchester derbies are back with a vengeance.
The North London equivalent between Arsenal and Spurs offered another notable encounter this week. While Harry Redknapp’s expensively-assembled side would ordinarily expect to dismantle a team worth £40m less, the importance of psychological hoodoos in football are not to be underestimated. They are certainly not to be discounted on the back of a dispiriting FA Cup semi-final defeat to the Premier League’s bottom club. Nevertheless, Tottenham roused themselves and ended Arsenal’s 11-year run as well as the Gunners’ title hopes. What’s more, it was a good game of football. Good games are not normally synonymous with local derbies (just ask the Old Firm), as pundits tend to prefer allusions to ‘commitment’ and ‘passion’ as bywords for players diving into challenges because they know the fans are really into it. For reference, see the first North London derby of the season which, aside from two Arsenal goals in eleven seconds, didn’t offer much.
Merseyside derbies, too, while not benefiting from a shot in the arm like those down the M62, or from a record finally coming to an end like in the capital, still boast two top-half teams. This season’s incarnations are notable for Liverpool delivering two performances the likes of which most people expected to see on a more frequent basis when tipping them for the title. A fairly dour performance nevertheless ground out a 2-0 win at Goodison, while a significantly more inspiring display saw Liverpool win the Anfield return 1-0, despite being reduced to 10 after half an hour. In the latter game, challenges were flying in all over the pitch, much to Andy Gray’s delight.
Derbies involving the league’s more successful clubs are starting to stand out on the fixture list again, even for those of us that strive to resist the pull of the often-lukewarm ‘Super Sunday’. City and Tottenham are closer than ever to the league’s biggest four and though their traditional city rivals continue to cling to Chelsea’s coat tails at the top, local bragging rights might be the only prize left on offer. Expect the word ‘pulsating’ to be overused this Saturday lunchtime; Hope for more of the same next season. Rob MacDonald
*This article was originally posted on Friday April 16, before the Manchester derby