The world’s most loved sporting league will return this weekend with a carnival like no other. The Premier League now has 20 mega wealthy football clubs, with players from 107 nations being represented. The league has evolved adapting tactical innovation throughout its history. Each year, gripping storylines and plot twists unfold. Heartbreak ensues, as there is only one victor and the rest are sent plunging to obliteration. For most lovers of the game, no television show offers the purity and passion of the drama on display here. Here, we look at five games that made the world stand motionless and altered the trajectory of the league’s history.
Manchester United v Arsenal- May 8, 2002
For all of Sir Alex Ferguson’s thinly veiled jabs at Arsene Wenger’s naivety about the nature of the English game, he had to admit that Le Professeur had something about him. Having introduced the concept of healthier diets, sports science and removed the drinking culture in English football, Arsene had romped to a superb title in his first full season in charge, the 1997/98 campaign. Fergie and his fledglings roared, to previously unheralded heights in response, however; winning a treble and 3 consecutive league crowns in the process. The Gunners arrived at Old Trafford in the 2001/02 campaign, knowing a point would win them the title. United were used to slicing teams apart, racking up goals for fun in front of their adoring public. But a poor campaign had seen them lose five games at home that year.
Sir Alex kept Ruud van Nistelrooy on the bench, opting for a front pair of Diego Forlan and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Arsenal had no Thierry Henry, with Sylvain Wiltord deployed up top and Dennis Bergkamp on the bench. United were fired up, though not in the best sense. Phil Neville went right through Wiltord and was perhaps lucky to stay on the field. Initial pops from Scholes and Wiltord from distance aside, the game was hotly contested in midfield, as contests between the pair in this era often were. Then, in the second half, the moment arrived. Mikael Silvestre was caught dawdling on the ball, and Arsenal pounced on the opportunity. Wiltord released Freddie Ljungberg, whose shot off Fabien Barthez fell to his feet. Finishing coolly into an empty net, Wiltord had done the unthinkable.
There was no Fergie Time blitz, as Arsenal went the whole campaign undefeated away, a stat that seems ludicrous seeing their modern day shape and form. This was a result that propped Arsenal up for the Invincibles, and truly ignited the rivalry between the pair. There would be Pizzagate and the Battle of Old Trafford to follow. But this was where it all truly initiated.
Manchester United v West Ham- May 14, 2007
The Premier League is as much about survival as it is of churning the winner. For teams at the bottom, rushing to the Championship represents very dire consequences. West Ham found themselves in a rut in March of 2007. 11 points adrift, West Ham clawed their way back into the mix, starting the final day of the season just outside the drop zone. Their task on the final day after this gallant late show? Overthrow the already crowned champions, Manchester United at their own home. Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic were also in the mix. The pair clashed at Sheffield United’s home, Bramall Lane. Sheffield had the task of avoiding defeat to stay up, which seemed fairly easy. If Wigan did win, and the Hammers lost, they would be buried under. And this is where the waters become cloudy.
Sir Alex rested players for the upcoming FA Cup Final, which United would be contesting. As his friend Alan Curbishley arrived at Old Trafford and the final day’s football kicked off, madness ensued. United seemed to be at half tilt and a scrappy phase in the middle of the park resulted in a Carlos Tevez goal. A United at half tilt still racked up 25 shots, as West Ham rode their luck. As West Ham won at Old Trafford, drama ensued in the other game. Neil Warnock and his Sheffield United side threw away their position of relative safety, losing their fixture 1-2.
As Sheffield United collapsed, more murky details emerged. Illegalities were exposed in the deal that secured Tevez’s services as a West Ham player. Tevez was never registered with his club, it was his agent Kia Joorabchian who held his registration rights. In what remains an ugly spat, West Ham agreed to pay Sheffield United 15 million pounds for damages over 5 years. United alleged their losses in revenue from the drop to the Championship amounted to 45 million. While payment was made and the matter resolved legally, that was of no solace to the fans of Sheffield United who feel cheated to this day. Their club were doomed, and West Ham, ever the villains of the piece, had seemingly got away with murder.
Manchester City v QPR- May 13, 2012
A day when a vicarious lulling shift would begin, on the 13th of May, Manchester United were away to Sunderland, yet the title’s destiny was in the hands of their noisy neighbours. A Vincent Kompany thunderous header in the derby and United’s careless play against the likes of Wigan Athletic had caused the unthinkable. With an 8 point lead with six games to play, United crumbled. Now on the final day, City had the superior goal difference, and at home to QPR, were odds-on to claim the title.
A Pablo Zabaleta strike towards the end of the first half had seen them pull ahead. But City are a club that can make a hash of any situation, and nearly contrived to throw this situation away as well. A howler from Joleon Lescott allowed Djibril Cisse in to equalise in the second half. Tempers frayed, as Joey Barton had to be pacified off the pitch following his red card. As the game reached its boiling point, the Premier League was awaiting the usual, Mancunian red ribbons on its trophy. Then, the incredible happened.
A 10 man QPR side on the break scored through Jamie Mackie’s downward planted header. United were winning away and now feeling ever more confident. As the clock moved to the final five minutes, City found a new lease of life. A David Silva corner was met by Edin Dzeko, who powered a header into the net. City now had to do what United under Sir Alex had made a habit. Lengthen the game in those final few seconds for their opponents. To be calm, to pick the right passes and create one more chance. Sir Alex was often a great advocate of growing stronger as the game wore on, to grind down the opponent in a cruel fashion. Little did he know about what was to unfold. As Wayne Rooney’s strike guaranteed United their 3 points, City persisted.
A low pass on the slide from Mario Balotelli found Sergio Aguero. City had waited 44 years for this. Years of misery watching their neighbours win everything and become a worldwide phenomenon loomed large. As Aguero drove his shot with terrific placement past Paddy Kenny, absolute delirium unfolded. QPR stayed up, City had done the unthinkable and United were jeered at Sunderland. As Wayne Rooney would write in his book later, City seemed to be slowly closing the gap each year, ever since their Abu Dhabi based owners had taken over. But this was the first time they stunned United. This was when they truly put themselves in the radar globally and in Europe. For all of Pep Guardiola’s Wonderwall football, this remains the moment when Manchester City truly started to wrest power away from United in their city, and by extension, the country.
Liverpool v Chelsea- April 27, 2014
One thing the Premier League has not witnessed so far is a Liverpool title win. A club of incredible class and tradition, Liverpool have a number of the most passionate fans in the land. When the Kop is up for the fight and roaring its Reds on, there isn’t a more fearsome sight in football for opponents. Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool had found excellent ethos, using Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard as midfield pivots. Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez had formed an excellent working partnership up top, even if did not parallel their personal relationship. The season had also seen the emergence of Raheem Sterling. Having gone on an incredible 11 game winning sequence, in which they beat City at Anfield and ripped up United at Old Trafford, the thrilling Reds were in touching distance of their first crown.
Expectations grew more and more, as the entire city of Liverpool was engulfed in hysteria. No one felt the emotion more than Steven Gerrard. A boy personally affected by Hillsborough, now a veteran with the chance to captain his club to its former glory. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea rocked up, with the fixture in between the two legs of their Champions League semi-final against Atletico Madrid. With the likes of the then unknown commodity Mo Salah, Tomas Kalas and Demba Ba starting, Chelsea were expected to be blown away by the might of the Reds. But Jose Mourinho, ever the enemy of football, brought his Machiavelli to the stage. Using time wasting, cheap fouls and astute defending, Chelsea stayed afloat in the game.
Then, the one man whose party it was, erred. An unfortunate slip from Gerrard let Ba in, who raced in on the goal and finished past Simon Mignolet. As the Kop grew increasingly edgy, seemingly trying to feed the ball into the goal, Mourinho’s moment arrived. On the break, in the dying embers, Fernando Torres raced the length of the Liverpool half before setting Willian free to tap in. Jose had spoilt yet another celebration and showed his tactics were still relevant and very successful. He had blown open the title race. As Liverpool never fully recovered, City seized the initiative and won their second crown in the Premier League era.
For all of Liverpool’s thrilling football, their amateurish defending cost them their title. The fixture remains historic because of what the consequences of a Liverpudlian win were. A revival of a sleeping giant and the ensuing return to glory would have set Liverpool in a position of power for many years. However, in the summer to follow, as Luis Suarez departed, Liverpool would have to go at it again and dare to hope the chance would again produce itself someday.
Manchester City v Leicester City- Feb 6, 2016
The 2015/2016 campaign was a freak of nature, a footballing anomaly. Chelsea were in a shambles following the complete meltdown of Jose Mourinho, who was sacked halfway through the campaign. United were meandering in siesta under manager Louis van Gaal, while Manchester City and Arsenal were inconsistent.
Over the course of an incredible run, heroes had emerged at Leicester City. N’golo Kante was a phenomenon in midfield, while Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were a brilliant pair up top. Danny Drinkwater put in heroic shifts, while Robert Huth and Wes Morgan formed a water-tight partnership. With 5 clean sheets in their last six and a win over Tottenham at the Lane under their belt, Leicester arrived in full flow.
News that Pep Guardiola would replace Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City worried City fans that their team would take its foot off the gas and so it proved. Huth stabbed Leicester into an early lead. In the second half, Kante won the ball and fed Mahrez. With great dancing feet, the Algerian stepped inside and finished with his right foot with consummate ease and power. A fine header from Huth for his second powered the Foxes into a staggering 0-3 lead. Aguero’s late goal was but a consolation.
The Foxes were a united bunch, playing simple yet committed football. Led by the Tinkerman Claudio Ranieri, whose friendly and encouraging attitude won the heart of every fan across the land. The Foxes restored people’s faith in the power of passion for the game. In what was a league undoubtedly controlled by Manchester United, the recent influx of powerful money had brought teams like Chelsea and Manchester City ever closer to the summit. United, Liverpool and Arsenal were each no less of a superpower either.
Fans of other clubs were resigned to watching these clubs fight for the biggest honours. Until this season, Leicester seemed to be a live exhibit of a team whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Fighting tooth and nail and being all passion and not a lot of cash, Leicester would go on to win an incredible league title. This team will never be forgotten and rightly so. This was the day they moved 5 points clear at the top, deposing a fierce challenger in style on their own turf. As commentator Peter Drury exclaimed in the wake of Mahrez’s goal, ‘Why shouldn’t they be champions?’ This was the day football seemed to be reborn in England.
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