Now That's What I Call A Title Race (Part 1)
It beggars belief but despite what a lot of people would have you believe, this season's Premier League title race is still wide open. No really.
Man United are only three points ahead of second-placed Chelsea, and though Arsenal are a further four points behind Avram Grant's men, they can look forward to games against Derby and Sunderland which should garner six points if all goes to plan.
So in general then, it's a three-horse-race for the title (come on you miserable lot - where's your sense of imagination?) but despite the excitement this is likely to generate, nothing beats the climax to the 1988/89 First Division campaign for sheer pant-wetting exhilaration.
Chances are you already know the end to this story, but what about the beginning and the middle? Let SPAOTP tell you how it all happened in this two-part tale of tears, cheers and Michael Thomas putting on over on his future employers…August and September 1988
The start of a new football season. Liverpool were the reigning champions having won the previous First Division championship by nine points. They'd only lost two games in the whole shooting match, so The Reds entered the 1988/89 season as red-hot favourites to do it again (no pun intended).
Millwall were in the top flight for the first time having picked up the Division Two title, and joining them up among the big boys were Graham Taylor's Aston Villa and a Middlesbrough side that had inflicted relegation on Chelsea via the new end-of-season play-offs.
Elsewhere, Wimbledon were still basking in the dying glow of a victory in the FA Cup Final over Liverpool while Luton were the League Cup champions after beating Arsenal (to the surprise of many) at Wembley.
Among the top stars of the day were Newcastle's Paul Gascoigne, voted Young Player of the Year, and Liverpool's John Barnes who won the grown-up version of the top award while on the England front, a pall of gloom hung over the country following a distinctly dismal trio of performances in Euro 88. Bobby Robson's men had been eliminated at the end of the First Round, leading to many calls for his resignation.
Back to the new First Division season though, and the two teams who were to be the fiercest of arch-rivals and main title contenders, Arsenal and Liverpool, both began with opening day wins at the end of August, but September would force some early daylight between them.
While Liverpool picked up two wins (including one over Manchester United) and two draws, Arsenal looked decidedly shaky. Only a 3-2 win away to Tottenham provided any hope for Gunners fans as they also saw their side lose 3-2 at home to Aston Villa, 2-1 away to Sheffield Wednesday and draw 2-2 with Southampton at Highbury.At the end of September 1988:Liverpool:
PL 5 W 3 D 2 L 0 F 9 A 3 PTS 11
PL 5 W 2 D 1 L 2 F 13 A 10 PTS 7
GD +3October 1988
Arsenal finally managed to reverse their faltering start to the season by going unbeaten throughout October '88, thanks to three wins against West Ham, QPR and Coventry and a draw against Luton Town.
Liverpool, however, were going in the opposite direction. Only one win (also against West Ham) and a draw against Coventry was all Kenny Dalglish's men had to show for their efforts. Defeats at the hands of Newcastle, Luton and Nottingham Forest meant they were now two points behind Arsenal at the end of the month having played an extra game.
Having lost only two games throughout the whole of the 1987/88 season, Liverpool had now lost three before the end of October. Was this the start of a catastrophe for the Anfield club?At the end of October 1988:Arsenal:
PL 9 W 5 D 2 L 2 F 22 A 13 PTS 17
PL 10 W 4 D 3 L 3 F 13 A 8 PTS 15
GD +5November 1988
Both teams came through November largely unscathed with Liverpool unbeaten thanks to two wins and two draws and Arsenal picking up three wins before a 2-1 defeat at Derby blotted their copy book.
Elsewhere, there was the League Cup to be considered and ironically both teams faced each other in a Third Round tie at the start of the month. Arsenal had already beaten Hull City 5-1 on aggregate and Liverpool had disposed of Walsall 4-1 over their two Second Round legs, but this would prove an altogether tougher tie to settle.
When Arsenal travelled to Anfield on November 2nd, the match ended a 1-1 draw. Back the two teams went to Highbury a week later, but the score there was 0-0. A second replay was therefore required, and when the two sides met again at Anfield it was the home side that finally broke the deadlock, winning the match 2-1. Arsenal were out, but would the early exit save tired legs for later battles at the end of the season?At the end of November 1988:Arsenal:
PL 13 W 8 D 2 L 3 F 31 A 16 PTS 26
PL 14 W 6 D 5 L 3 F 19 A 10 PTS 23
GD +9December 1988
Arsenal went from strength to strength as the year came to an end with another unbeaten month safely sown up, thanks to wins against Man United, Charlton and Aston Villa along with two draws, one of which was at home to Liverpool. It meant the two teams had faced each other four times in just over a month.
The Reds' form was rather more ordinary-looking and their supply of goals was also drying up. Following the 1-1 draw with Arsenal was another at home to Everton, followed by a 1-0 home defeat to Norwich and a 1-0 away win at Derby. Even their place in the League Cup which they'd fought so hard for in November had now been taken away from them by West Ham, who knocked Liverpool out 4-1 in the Fourth Round.At the end of December 1988:Arsenal:
PL 18 W 11 D 4 L 3 F 42 A 20 PTS 37
PL 18 W 7 D 7 L 4 F 22 A 13 PTS 28
With a nine point lead over the reigning champions at the end of 1988, Arsenal appeared to be pulling further and further away from Liverpool and the chasing pack in the race for the title, but for how much longer? Come back soon for the second and final thrilling instalment of 'Now That's What I Call A Title Race'...
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