The countdown is in full swing: in just nine days’ time the Barclays Premier League returns to action after its annual summer hiatus and the anticipation is building for what promises to be the most exciting season to date.
Manchester City’s stunning title victory in the dying breaths of a rollercoaster 2011/12 season signalled a renaissance for the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest League In The World’, for so long monopolised by Manchester United and a small coterie of clubs whose title wins have peppered a landscape otherwise traditionally swathed in the distinctive red of the Manchester monolith.
With 12 out of 20 titles to their name thus far they have dominated the domestic game since the inception of the Premier League, with just three other clubs having triumphed prior to City’s victory in May. One of those, Blackburn Rovers, won just the once back in 1995 and indeed found themselves relegated to the Championship last time around; football can indeed be a cruel master.
It could be argued that only Jose Mourinho’s magnificent Chelsea side have come close to breaking United’s stranglehold with hugely impressive back-to-back successes in 2005 and 2006. However, United’s response was swift and vicious as they secured the three titles immediately thereafter to reassert themselves as the primary force in English football following the enigmatic Mourinho’s departure in 2007.
Arsenal have matched Chelsea’s tally of three titles in the same period, the highlight being the ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003/04 which saw them go unbeaten for the entirety of the campaign courtesy of some scintillating attacking football from the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and Patrick Vieira.
One of those, Blackburn Rovers, won just the once back in 1995 and indeed found themselves relegated to the Championship last time around
Despite such sweet success it has proven only fleeting and Arsenal have similarly failed to eclipse or indeed match United in any meaningful way, certainly in recent times, so the emergence of City has breathed fresh life into the competition. This, along with further concerted investment from Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and a considerable influx of talented foreign players this summer means expectations are higher than ever. The excitement is palpable.
So, with 20 seasons recently under it’s belt and with more than a hint of nostalgia here is a breakdown of some of the Premier League’s greatest games to whet one’s appetite for the coming season.
1) Manchester City 3-2 QPR - 2011-12 Season - The Power Shift
Possibly the Premier League’s finest hour. Sergio Aguero’s drilled finish deep into injury-time against a resilient 10-man QPR wrested the title from the hands of their esteemed neighbours and bitter rivals Manchester United in the most dramatic fashion possible.
Going into the game, City and United were level on points, with the goal difference column very much in City’s favour. United had in, recent weeks, contrived to blow an eight-point lead to hand the impetus back to City and a first title win for The Citizens seemed, on paper, something of a given against a poor QPR side, themselves battling in a straight shootout with Bolton Wanderers against relegation.
The game began in such a fashion with City dominating possession against a deep-lying away defence. Urgency was lacking and only a contrived goal from City full-back Pablo Zabaleta with no little help from QPR goalkeeper Paddy Kenny separated the sides at the break where the talismanic Yaya Toure was withdrawn with a knock and replaced by Nigel de Jong for City.
The second half was an altogether different story. QPR came out with renewed vigour and belief, galvanised no doubt by news of Bolton’s half-time lead at Stoke City: as it stood, they were down.
Only three minutes after the restart, a calamitous error from Joleon Lescott allowed Djibril Cisse in to finish smartly past Joe Hart. City were rocked and with United leading 1-0 through Rooney’s first-half header at The Stadium Of Light against a lacklustre Sunderland, a pall of anxiety descended on Eastlands.
This was further compounded in the 66th minute as Jamie Mackie stooped to head home Armand Traore’s deep cross to send the away support into raptures and the City faithful into muted disbelief. With United still leading, City were 2-1 down with less than 25 minutes to play: they needed to score twice to win the title.
In the interim, QPR captain Joey Barton had been dismissed following ugly clashes with Carlos Tevez, Aguero and Vincent Kompany, leaving the Hoops down to 10 men, but City were ineffective and struggling to break down their opponents. The tension was mounting.
City were rocked and with United leading 1-0 through Rooney’s first-half header at The Stadium Of Light against a lacklustre Sunderland, a pall of anxiety descended on Eastlands.
Mancini threw on both Edin Dzeko and later, in the 76th minute, the enigmatic Mario Balotelli as City chased the game but still they couldn’t break down QPR and still United led at Sunderland.
Indeed as the game entered injury time the final whistle had blown in the North-East and Sir Alex Ferguson and his side were sure they’d secured a 13th Premier League title; pictures filtered through of players and staff tentatively celebrating a seemingly hitherto unlikely outcome.
However, as the clock ticked down Edin Dzeko powered home a headed equaliser from a corner to set up a nail-biting conclusion where wave upon wave of attacks rained down on the QPR goal. The atmosphere was white-hot as time ebbed away and City fans could barely watch.
With literally seconds remaining Aguero dropped deftly into a pocket of space outside the box, turned adroitly and fed the ball into the feet of Balotelli. The Italian seemed to fall backward in slow motion as he simultaneously controlled and fed the ball gently into the box ahead of the advancing Aguero who was hungry for the return pass.
In a moment of startling clarity and calm amid a raging cacophony of angst and desperation the Argentine allowed the ball to run across his body and the despairing lunge of the last man before fizzing a crisp strike past Kenny at the near post.
He wheeled away in celebration as the stadium erupted in joy and disbelief. Commentators and pundits struggled to cogently articulate their thoughts about what had happened. It was the singular most dramatic end to a season since the inception of the Premier League and a truly fitting way to herald a probable power shift at the top of the English game.
The ‘noisy neighbours’ had trumped United in the cruellest fashion and in the process blown the future of The Premier League wide open.
2) Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle United - 1995-96 Season - Rollercoaster
Considered by many to be THE greatest game in Premier League history. At the time, both sides were pressing United hard for the title and indeed a win for either team would have seen them draw level on points with the league leaders.
Featuring such Premier League luminaries as Robbie Fowler, Stan Collymore, Ian Rush, Les Ferdinand and David Ginola, the game was end-to-end stuff with a remarkable climax which gave us the iconic image of Kevin Keegan slumping forward despairingly in the dug-out as Collymore crashed home a late winner from close range.
Considered by many to be THE greatest game in Premier League history
Fowler scored early on before Ferdinand and the majestic Ginola gave Newcastle the lead. A second from Fowler restored parity in the second half only for Faustino Asprilla to hand the advantage back to Newcastle.
Like two skilled heavyweights matching each other punch for punch, both sides went for the jugular and it was Collymore who equalised late on to set up the thrilling denouement where John Barnes and Ian Rush rolled back the years to combine wonderfully for Collymore to slam home the winner and rock Anfield’s foundations, causing Keegan to almost physically deflate before our very eyes.
3) Tottenham Hotspur 3-5 Manchester United - 2001-02 Season - The Comeback
There have been other comebacks of course, notably Newcastle’s return from the dead in the 2010-11 season in their home fixture against Arsenal. Having gone in 4-0 down at the break they rallied to draw 4-4 courtesy of Cheick Tiote’s spectacular late equaliser and leave Arsene Wenger to lament his side’s lack of steel.
However, for sheer audacity and brilliance, Manchester United’s comeback at White Hart Lane in October 2001 stands tall.
Following an abject first half they trailed to goals from Dean Richards, Les Ferdinand and Christian Ziege and faced both the wrath of their manager and an uphill climb to salvage something tangible from the game.
United were without both Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs that day and suffered the further withdrawal of Nicky Butt through injury. However, this led to the introduction of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, which Sir Alex Ferguson has since stated was pivotal as he carried the attack to Spurs thereafter and provided them with added width and natural forward intent.
The generally maligned Juan Sebastian Veron was instrumental for United centrally along with the ever-excellent Paul Scholes
Shortly after the restart Andy Cole pulled one back for the visitors and initial murmurs of worry rippled quietly around the ground. Just before the hour mark a typically searching corner from David Beckham allowed Laurent Blanc to head home before Ruud van Nistelrooy similarly converted a Mikael Silvestre cross just before 80 minutes. United had dragged themselves back into contention with a magnificent second-half display of verve, panache and desire, no doubt driven by an incandescent Ferguson at the interval.
The generally maligned Juan Sebastian Veron was instrumental for United centrally along with the ever-excellent Paul Scholes; indeed Veron himself notched the fourth to cap an impressive display before Solskjaer delivered for Beckham to finish late on, rubbing salt into Spurs’ wounds and further bolstering United’s fearsome reputation as a team that simply never accepts defeat.
Post-match, Spurs manager Glenn Hoddle was asked what had gone wrong. "Half-time", he replied.
4) Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool - 2002-03 Season - The Billionaire Precursor
This was arguably the biggest game in Chelsea’s history, mainly for reasons not wholly apparent at the time. There was of course the small matter of Champions League qualification, its accompanying bounty and separate benefits, but the sub-plot was one that ushered in a new future for the Blues and changed the landscape of the Premier League as a whole.
Whoever won the game would qualify for the Champions League so both sides knew the stakes. Sami Hyypia gave Liverpool the lead before Marcel Desailly levelled matters.
It triggered the events that led to the eventual takeover by Roman Abramovich
In fairly close succession came a winning goal from Jesper Gronkjaer, a frustratingly inconsistent Danish winger and one of the lesser-known members of Chelsea’s squad over the years. However, the importance of his strike here cannot be underestimated as it triggered the events that led to the eventual takeover by Roman Abramovich and the success that followed thereafter which transformed the club and breathed new life into the Premier League.
It’s been said that Abramovich wasn’t 100% set on Chelsea as his investment at that point, Gronkjaer’s goal and The Blues subsequent qualification for the Champions League is rumoured to have been a deciding factor.
From acorns grow Oaks; Chelsea fans have much to thank Jesper Gronkjaer for.
5) Liverpool 2-1 Blackburn Rovers - 1994-95 Season - A Solitary Triumph
The manner of Blackburn’s title success in 1995 is in many ways not too dissimilar to the recent win by Manchester City, in fact some might say it was eerily prescient.
Local steel magnate and father figure Jack Walker steadily pumped money into his beloved Rovers over a 4-5 year period, culminating in their sensational title win in 1995. In came a 22 year old Alan Shearer for a then-record fee of £3.5m along with the likes of Chris Sutton, David Batty, Tim Flowers, Graeme Le Saux and Stuart Ripley to complement the pedigree of Kenny Dalglish at the helm.
Memories may have faded now, but Rovers had finished a close second to Manchester United in the 1993-94 season, much like City in 2010-11. Both clubs had enjoyed a steady improvement in their fortunes courtesy of heavy financial investment bolstering the playing staff to previously unprecedented levels.
Rovers went out of all cup competitions early on and so were free to concentrate solely on their assault on the Premier League title. As the final weekend loomed Blackburn were two points clear meaning a win would secure an incredible first Premier League title for the Lancashire club.
Both clubs had enjoyed a steady improvement in their fortunes courtesy of heavy financial investment
In a twist of fate they would travel to Anfield, Dalglish’s spiritual home. It goes without saying that this is never an easy fixture. In comparison, United would travel to Upton Park needing to win as a minimum and hoping Rovers would choke against Liverpool.
As it was, Rovers had a dream start with Shearer netting after only 20 minutes to calm their nerves. They were buoyed further as news spread of a Michael Hughes volley giving the Hammers the lead only ten minutes later: Rovers were poised.
Football being football, the afternoon still had plenty to bring, as with Brian McClair equalising for United and Barnes for Liverpool respectively, the picture changed again and the title hung very much in the balance. United needed just one goal. It was to prove elusive; they pressed hard but missed chances. Rovers in comparison seemed rattled and struggled to get back into the game at Anfield, toiling laboriously to the finish line.
In a final flourish, as the full-time whistle blew in East London Jamie Redknapp curled a fabulous free-kick into the top corner at Anfield and time seemed to stand still for Rovers with Dalglish frozen in uncertainty on the touchline.
In a twist of fate they would travel to Anfield, Dalglish’s spiritual home
As it was, Blackburn were victorious in defeat and won by a single point due to United’s failure to score a decisive goal. Jack Walker’s dream was realised as Rovers won their first title since 1914 and the celebrations began. From (then) Second Division strugglers to Premier League victors in 5 years, it was a story to warm the heart.
It would, however, prove to be the pinnacle as they subsequently became the first former champions to be relegated in 1999 and again last May with their benefactor Walker having passed away in the interim leaving just fond memories of that glorious May afternoon in 1995, when Rovers rattled the Big Boys of English football and put their mark on Premier League history.
6) Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal - 2004-05 Season - The Invincibles Fall
This was the day the famous unbeaten Arsenal side ran out of steam in the simmering cauldron of Old Trafford. After 49 games, Manchester United put the Gunners to the sword en-route to reclaiming their title.
It was a bad-tempered game. United were forceful and aggressive, attacking Arsenal’s soft underbelly with their lightweight winger Jose Antonio Reyes especially coming under fire from both Gary and Phil Neville as the brothers went to war in what proved to be pure footballing theatre.
After 49 games, Manchester United put the Gunners to the sword en-route to reclaiming their title.
Wayne Rooney was felled by Sol Campbell with Ruud van Nistelrooy tucking home the controversial spot-kick to exorcise his demons following a miss the previous year in the original ‘Battle Of Old Trafford’. Rooney himself then slotted home late on as Arsenal desperately sought an equaliser to seal a 2-0 win for the Red Devils.
The game was significant in that it saw United once again thwart a potential threat to their superiority. Arsenal’s unbeaten record was admirable but their longevity questionable: as it stands they have won just one FA Cup in the eight years since.
7) Newcastle 5-0 Manchester United - 1996-97 season - The Great Entertainers
There was a time in the 1990's when Newcastle United were a genuine threat to Manchester United. Led by Kevin Keegan, they played a vibrant, attacking brand of football that set the Premier League alight.
David Ginola, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Faustino Asprilla and others all shone to the delight of the famous ‘Toon Army’. Ultimately, a combination of inconsistency and defensive frailties would see them burn out as potential challengers but it was an enjoyable ride to say the least.
The result in question came the season following Keegan’s now infamous meltdown as he succumbed to the legendary mind-games of Sir Alex Ferguson. Who can forget the oversized-headphones and jabbing finger as he snapped under the pressure of his side blowing an incredible 12-point lead at the summit of the Premier League?
Ultimately, a combination of inconsistency and defensive frailties would see them burn out as potential challengers
However, the events of 20th October, 1996, went some way towards easing the pain. A towering header from Darren Peacock set the tone on 12 minutes followed by a spectacular long-range strike from Ginola on the half-hour. Ferdinand crashed a header in off the bar on 63 minutes leaving the Toon Army in fine voice, baying for United blood and redemption for their beloved Barcodes.
Shearer then scored from close range before a sublime chip late on from the stylish Phillipe Albert over a hapless Peter Schmeichel completed the one of the most famous routs in Premier League history, leaving Keegan with a rather large grin on his face.
8) Bradford City 1-0 Liverpool - 1999-00 season - The Great Escape
For all the drama and excitement at the top of the table, there is equal tension and nerves at the bottom come the business end of the season. The financial implications of relegation are onerous and some clubs have literally disappeared without trace following their time at the top table.
Possibly the best-known example on record was the final day of the 1999-00 season at Valley Parade where Bradford City faced Liverpool. They went into the game level on points with Wimbledon on just 33 apiece, a record low. Wimbledon had a superior goal difference, so Bradford had to better their result at Southampton to prolong their stay in the Promised Land.
It was an emotional day all round as the teams observed a minute’s silence prior to kick-off to honour the 15th anniversary of the Bradford fire in which 56 men, women and children died. A fervent home support then drove the City players forward and the roof came off when a thumping header from former Leeds United Stalwart David Wetherall put the Bantams ahead on 13 minutes.
They went into the game level on points with Wimbledon on just 33 apiece, a record low.
It proved to be enough as an abject Wimbledon succumbed to goals from Wayne Bridge and Marian Pahars at The Dell and promptly dropped out of the Premier League into obscurity and, before too long, the footballing ether.
Bradford stayed up courtesy of the lowest points total on record; they lived to fight another day.
9) Liverpool 3-3 Manchester United - 1993-94 Season - Fierce Rivalries
Possibly Sir Alex Ferguson’s most famous quote is one pertaining to the usurping of Liverpool Football Club after their years of dominance throughout the ‘70s and ‘80’s. He suggested with refreshing frankness upon his arrival in English football that his goal was to ‘knock them off their ******g perch’.
In the 1993-94 season, Liverpool were very much a side in transition, their glory days a fading memory. Anfield was still a formidable place to go however and on a crisp January evening, United found there was life in the old dog yet.
He suggested with refreshing frankness upon his arrival in English football that his goal was to ‘knock them off their ******g perch’
United surged into a 3-0 lead after just 24 minutes following goals from Steve Bruce, Ryan Giggs and a trademark Denis Irwin free kick. Anfield was both stunned and embarrassed. United, their fiercest rivals; were mauling them on their own patch and their fall from grace seemed complete.
To their credit Liverpool rallied and clawed their way back into the game thanks to a brace from Nigel Clough, the high point of an otherwise mediocre spell at the club. United were rocked and both sides traded blows throughout the second half until a powerful late headed equaliser from Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock sent the Kop wild with delight.
From ignominy to redemption, raging against the dying of the light, they would not be cowed. Liverpool were still able to fight it out in the new Status Quo.
10) Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle - 1996-97 Season - Lightning Strikes Twice
One season on from Stan Collymore’s late winner and Kevin Keegan’s agony came the second instalment. Kenny Dalglish was now in charge of Newcastle and certain elements of the two teams had changed, but the outcome was still the same; goals and drama.
This time Liverpool raced into a 3-0 lead courtesy of Steve McManaman, Patrick Berger and, as previously, an impish Robbie Fowler at the height of his powers. Liverpool were cruising, but a succession of errors from David ‘Calamity’ James let Newcastle back into the game.
The outcome was still the same; goals and drama
He initially allowed a weak effort from Keith Gillespie past him before making an ill-advised advance from his line to stop Faustino Asprilla who coolly lobbed him from some 30-35 yards. He was then beaten to another loose ball by Warren Barton who poked home the equaliser; breathless stuff.
There was a familiar sting in the tail though for the Geordie faithful as Fowler headed home in incredible scenes at the death to send them home empty-handed once again. Lightning had struck twice with two games that would live long in the memory.
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