Matt Sproston recalls a memorable away game at Arsenal…
LFC line-up: Westerveld, Smicer, Henchoz, Hyypia, Carragher, Gerrard, Hamann, Matteo, Berger, Meijer, Camara.
The previous away win for Liverpool against Arsenal came in February 2000 courtesy of a Titi Camara goal. Prior to that game the Reds had notched up 5 wins and 2 draws in 8 premier league games at Highbury. The game will be remembered for Camara’s cool finish but was more important as it was the earliest indication of the powerful counter attacking side that Gerard Houllier was putting together.
Like now, Liverpool were in the middle of a rebuilding phase. The Roy Evans era had ended in glorious failure and the ignominy of being demoted to joint manager. The flair team that Evans had put together was dismantled as new manager Houllier built from the back. The previous summer saw Houllier bring in goalkeeper Sander Westerveld, centre back Stephane Henchoz and playmaker Vladimir Smicer, all of whom were to have a big impact on the success of the team in the next 2 seasons. However, it was the signings of Sami Hyypia and Dietmar Hamann that would prove to be most vital with both players proving to be genuine Liverpool legends.
The teams met each other level on 44 points. Arsenal were third in the table, Liverpool fourth on goal difference. The Reds came into the match in good form having beaten second place Leeds (remember them) the previous week.
Injuries to Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen meant a less than formidable cult hero strike partnership of “Mad” Erik Meijer and Titi Camara went up against an Arsenal team missing Tony Adams but still containing Seaman, Keown, Vieira, Petit, Henry and Bergkamp.
The game itself was one of few chances. Henry almost opened the scoring after 12 minutes but was denied by a great save from Westerveld. On 18 minutes a young Stevie Gerrard, midway in his own half, picked out Camara with the sort of defence splitting through ball that he would become famous for. Titi beat the fabled Arsenal offside trap and calmly waited for Seaman to commit himself before driving the ball home.
Arsenal were largely frustrated by a well organised Liverpool team for the rest of the half. Their only clear chance came when Henry broke free only to be denied by Westerveld. Mad Erik had a shot well saved late in the half.
Arsenal laid siege to the Liverpool goal for most of the second half. Hyypia and Henchoz were magnificent though and on the few occasions that they were breached Westerveld was excellent. Vieira hit the crossbar late on but there would be no equaliser.
Liverpool looked on course for a top 3 finish and Champions league qualification (only 3 teams from England qualified at that time). However, a dismal run in of 3 points from 6 games saw the Reds miss out.
By the end of 2000, Houllier had brought in Heskey, McAllister, Babbel, Ziege and Litmanen and Liverpool’s next great team had been forged. Were it not for a serious heart condition, the league would surely have followed.
As for Titi and Mad Erik, the cult hero strike partnership would help the Reds to a draw at Old Trafford in the next game but would not start a game together again. Both would leave in the next few months but neither would be forgotten.