For the last few seasons, Manchester City and Liverpool’s rivalry has dominated English football.
Far from simply being the two teams at the top of the table, there’s been a romantic poignancy to it as well; whereas Pep Guardiola’s philosophy is all about keeping the ball, Jurgen Klopp’s brand of gegenpressing has made Liverpool Manchester City’s perfect kryptonite.
But with Guardiola’s contract due to expire at the end of the season and Sergio Aguero the only man left standing from the core of leaders that emerged from City’s first Premier League title, it feels as though the Etihad outfit have come to the end of a natural cycle.
That, in turn, opens up a space for a team to emerge and put a different rivalry at the top of the Premier League – perhaps two should Liverpool unexpectedly struggle to maintain the standards of the last few seasons.
With that in mind, we look back at the greatest title rivalries in Premier League history, and ask whether they could be revived to become the centre-piece of English football once again…
9. Chelsea vs Liverpool
Origins: Inspired by Jesper Gronkjaer, Chelsea won a fourth-place shootout with Liverpool on the final day of 2002/03 season. Failure to quality for the Champions League would have plunged the club into financial oblivion, but victory instead saw Roman Abramovich buy the Blues six weeks later.
That game also kickstarted a four-year run of Chelsea and Liverpool meeting each other in the Champions League, including Luis Garcia’s infamous ghost goal and the Blues beating the Reds in the 2008 semi-finals.
Hottest point: Much of Chelsea and Liverpool’s rivalry was played out in Europe and the reason its so low in our rankings is because they’ve never directly squared up to each other in a title race. But in strictly Premier League terms, one moment does stand out – the Steven Gerrard slip.
The next great title rivalry? It has all the makings of it. There’s historic tension between the two clubs and Chelsea are now managed by a former player in Frank Lampard who had first-hand experience of how bitter the rivalry got.
More importantly, Chelsea could very well become the club that replaces Man City at the top of the Premier League. They’ve just invested huge sums in a young squad that will be expected to compete across the next five years, although whether they have the winning mentality to match their obvious talent remains to be seen.
8. Liverpool vs Manchester United
Origins: A rivalry that combines both locality and glory. These two clubs are not only the biggest and most successful in the North West, but also the biggest and most successful throughout the history of English football.
Just as Liverpool dominated the 1980s, it was United’s turn to reign supreme by the time the Premier League came to fruition.
Hottest point: Despite being perhaps English football’s biggest rivalry, there’s only been one season in which Liverpool and United have been the two clubs scrapping it out for the crown.
That came in 2008/09 when Liverpool finished second under Rafa Benitiez, but their efforts that season were largely overshadowed by the Spaniard’s famous “facts” speech, when he held a press conference specifically to complain about Ferguson’s constant complaining.
It didn’t wash well as fans began to sing “Rafa’s cracking up”, and eventually United went on to win the title once again as Liverpool finished second.
The next great rivalry? It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, but there’s a lot of work to be done for United to become worthy competitors by the time next season starts. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under massive pressure following an underwhelming start to the season and the most expensive signing in the club’s history, Paul Pogba, can’t even get into the team.
That being said, United could look incredibly different under a new manager, and after a Chelsea-esque shopping spree during the next summer transfer window.
7. Arsenal vs Chelsea
Origins: Typical London rivals, these two clubs have never seen eye-to-eye, but Chelsea’s emergence as English football’s top force under Roman Abramovich during a time when Arsenal had just established themselves as the Premier League’s Invincibles really kicked their long-standing hatred into overdrive.
Abramovich’s millions would ultimately see Chelsea overtake Arsenal as not just the top team in London but throughout the entire Premier League, quickly making the Invincibles a distant memory by following up Arsenal’s last English crown with back-to-back titles on their own.
Hottest point: Much of the rivalry centred around Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho’s active dislike for each other.
Their feud continues to this day after Wenger failed to mention Mourinho in his latest book, but perhaps its most bitter point came back in 2005 when the latter overstepped the mark in their war of words, describing the Gunners gaffer as a “voyeur”.
The next great rivalry? It feels like Chelsea are only a few ingredients short of being genuine title contenders but Arsenal are quite some way off.
The Gunners could only manage an eighth-place finish last season and while they bested the Blues in the FA Cup final, their start to the new campaign has been underwhelming – they’re already four points off the Champions League places.
6. Liverpool vs Man City
Origins: 21st November 2015: Man City 1-4 Liverpool. Having taken over at Anfield around a month previously, this was perhaps the first match in which we really saw Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy come to the fore as his Liverpool side ripped City apart on the counter-attack at the Etihad Stadium.
Fast forward a few years and as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City emerged as by far the stand-out side in English football, Liverpool quickly became the only team that had the necessary style of play, quality of personnel and confidence to go out and beat them.
Hottest point: A fourth-month spell in which Liverpool beat Manchester City three times, first 4-3 in the Premier League and then in both legs of their Champions League quarter-final. The Anfield leg was marred with high emotion and great controversy as Liverpool fans filled the streets of Merseyside and attacked City’s team bus prior to the match.
The next great rivalry? Well, it’s the current rivalry, so by default it can’t be the next great one. But maybe it will last a little longer than we think. While City do indeed appear to be at the end of a cycle, there are still world-class players throughout their starting XI. Find the right successor to Guardiola and there’s no reason City can’t still compete for the title.
5. Chelsea vs Man United
Origins: Even before Abramovich’s fortunes made them regular title winners, Chelsea were one of United’s traditional bogey teams, beating them in the Premier League in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1999 and 2001.
But as soon as the Russian billionaire took over at Stamford Bridge, it was clear Chelsea and United would be on a collision course as the two Premier League clubs with the biggest financial resources.
Eventually that proved to be the case and from 2005/06 to 2010/11, Chelsea and Man United would both finish in the top two barring Liverpool’s anomalous title bid in 2008/09.
Hottest point: This rivalry got most ferocious in 2008, in what was soon dubbed “the battle of the Bridge”, when United’s players fought with Chelsea’s ground staff following a 2-1 defeat. That was later followed by facing each other in the 2008 Champions League final, decided by John Terry’s slip in the penalty shootout.
The next great rivalry? As individual candidates to take Man City’s place in the coming seasons, Chelsea and United both have their merits. But whether Liverpool can be toppled simultaneously is another debate altogether.
The majority of their key personnel are still enjoying their peak years and Jurgen Klopp is under contract until 2024, so it seems unlikely Liverpool will stop competing for the Premier League’s top prize any time soon.
4. Man United vs Man City
Origins: Two major clubs sharing one city is the archetypal formula for a footballing rivalry and this one stems back to their first meeting when, back in the 19th century, Newton Heath beat Manchester City 5-2.
In the Premier League, it wasn’t a rivalry of particular significance until 2009, when City used the riches of Sheik Mansour’s takeover the year previous to sign former United player Carlos Tevez, and controversially erect a billboard with the words “Welcome to Manchester” imprinted across the Argentine. Fergie soon responded by dubbing them “the noisy neighbours”.
Hottest point: Undoubtedly the end of the 2011/12 season. United squandered a significant lead in the title race as it came down to the final day of the campaign, but as they patiently waited for results to come in after beating Wigan, something special happed at the Etihad.
After going 2-1 down, Manchester City hit back with two stoppage time goals, Aguero’s legendary last-second winner included, to snatch the title from their local rivals on goal difference.
The next great rivalry? As previously mentioned, a lot would have to happen for Liverpool to suddenly disappear from the title picture, whereas United would need to rise from the relative ashes of also-ran status to become a major force once again, and City would need to exit the Guardiola era with a seamless transition.
Currently, that all seems a little unlikely, but you can never be certain in the Premier League.
3. Chelsea vs Tottenham
Origins: These are quite simply two London clubs that have never liked each other, and while Spurs may be more preoccupied with Arsenal, most Chelsea fans see Tottenham as their most hated rivals.
But in terms of the Premier League title, while relatively short-lived, this bitter feud suddenly became the focal point of English football in 2015/16 and 2016/17, as Chelsea had the deciding say on Tottenham’s title hopes in the former campaign and then narrowly pipped Spurs to the crown in the latter.
Hottest point: The Battle of Stamford Bridge- one of the greatest 90 minutes of Premier League football you’ll ever see. Tottenham travelled to west London knowing they needed a win to stop Leicester claiming the crown, while Chelsea were determined to make amends for the capitulation of their title defence by preventing it from going to their fierce rivals.
Spurs roused to a 2-0 goal lead by half-time but Chelsea staged an incredible comeback in the second, completed with a stunning solo goal from Eden Hazard.
By that point, tempers had more than boiled over as practically every break in play lead to a full-scale brawl. In total there were nine yellow cards for Spurs and three for Chelsea, while Mousa Dembele later received a six-match ban for poking Diego Costa in the eye.
The next great rivalry? It may seem unlikely but don’t discount Spurs in all of this. In Mourinho they have a manager with three Premier League titles already on his CV, and they’re currently second in the table after a solid start to the new season.
Chelsea’s squad has a more long-term feel about it and you’d expect players like Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to come into their own over the next 18 months, but you can never truly write off a team that has Harry Kane up front.
2. Man United vs Newcastle
Origins: Inspired by Kevin Keegan’s devotion to quite simply scoring as many goals as possible, the Magpies were a breath of fresh air in the Premier League after gaining promotion from Division 1 and few sides – including Man United, who lost 5-0 at St. James’ Park in 1996 – knew quite how to handle them.
Newcastle would spend two seasons finishing second to United in the table, but in both instances were very much the peoples’ champions as the division’s great entertainers.
Hottest point: Keegan’s live meltdown. It’s so legendary that we won’t go into the specifics of what was actually said, but it’s safe to say the then-Newcastle manager, aware his side had thrown away a 12-point lead in January, lost the plot on national TV.
That only made the scenes after the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool all the more poignant, as Keegan reacted to Collymore’s late winner by collapsing over the advertising hoardings, completely exhausted.
The next great rivalry? With two of the most opinion-splitting managers in the Premier League, and two of the most disliked sets of owners, it’s hard to imagine a situation where Man United and Newcastle are duking it out at the top of the division any time soon.
A lot has changed since the mid-nineties: the Red Devils are no longer English football’s most dominant force, and Newcastle are more concerned with avoiding relegation.
1. Man United vs Arsenal
Origins: Bad blood had been brewing between both clubs since the late 1980s, and during a 1990 clash a 21-man brawl erupted, resulting in Arsenal and United being deducted points.
But things heated up even more after Arsene Wenger’s arrival in 1996. It reawakened Arsenal as one of the top teams in English football, and it wasn’t long before his side had established themselves as the most qualified competitors to Man United in the title race since the Premier League began.
They beat United to the crown by a single point in 1997/98, and from that season on the title race would be an Arsenal and Red Devils affair until Chelsea’s emergence in 2004/05.
Hottest point: Pizzagate came a little after Arsenal’s final Premier League title so instead we’re going to focus on The Battle of Old Trafford. Influenced by the fact the Gunners had famously won the title on United’s patch in 2001/02, and in their prior Premier League encounter Sol
Campbell was sent off for elbowing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this was always going to be a foul-tempered affair.
Patrick Vieira picked up a second yellow card for kicking at (but missing) Ruud van Nistelrooy in the 80th minute, and when stoppage time came around the Red Devils were awarded a controversial penalty. The Dutchman went up to take it but missed, and Martin Keown responded by jumping on his back.
After the full-time whistle, a number of Arsenal players confronted van Nistelrooy, resulting in fiery scenes between both sets of players.
The next great rivalry? We may be ranking it as the best title rivalry in Premier League history, but for it to be rekindled both clubs would have to overcome their shared failing – adapting to a world without the most successful managers in their history at the helm.
Indeed, United and Arsenal are still yet to really overcome the departures of Ferguson and Wenger, and until they both do, this rivalry won’t be at the summit of English football.