Commentary

Attack of the two-headed derby

Updated: September 30, 2011, 3:06 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

There is nothing quite like the pain of losing a derby. In the occasional (OK, twice a week) cold-sweat Spurs nightmares that ravage my Gooner slumber, I can still see Gazza's 30-yard screamer that would have sheared off David Seaman's ponytail if he had been able to get within three feet of it.

And that happened 20 years ago.

[+] EnlargeLuka Modric
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesTottenham has managed to hold on to its talisman, Luka Modric, who will face the Fabregas-less Gunners on Sunday.

But that's the ineffable thing about derbies. The suffering bites long and deep. To this day, I refuse to believe that it was Spurs who beat us in the 1991 FA Cup semifinal but rather the inescapable genius of Paul Gascoigne. Alas, Gazza ended up -- as all Tottenham-loving supporters eventually do -- paying for his sins against Arsenal with a sad and tragic descent into madness.

Of course, I bring this up as I gird for the psychic rinse cycle of another derby weekend that features not just Tottenham versus Arsenal but also Everton versus Liverpool. These are not the usual gut-clenching, finger-gnawing angst fests in which each team plays not to lose (think every soul-numbing chess match between Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Rafa Benitez's Liverpool) and end up in turgid 0-0 draws. Three of the four teams play slick, attacking soccer (Everton last swept forward when David Moyes was a wee bairn and chairman Bill Kenwright still spent pounds sterling on transfers), and often produce more goals than players sent off. Over the past few years, we've been treated to enough epic Spurs performances to flog a billion commemorative DVDs outside White Hart Lane, and enough spilled claret at Anfield and Goodison to keep the Scouse riot police flush with overtime pay.

While Merseyside begets mayhem, North London begets goals. There's the insane 4-4 thriller in 2008 that cemented Arsenal's reputation for finding new and uniquely tortuous ways to throw away points. When Luka Modric's deflected drive pinged off the post and fell invitingly for Aaron Lennon to bundle the ball past Manuel "He Could Have Been England's No. 1" Almunia, to cap a two-goal Spurs comeback in the last five minutes, I spit my beer in a parabolic arc onto the head of a Tottenham fan nearly five feet away who was deliriously jumping up and down screaming "Yiddos, Yiddos!" Or the coronary-inducing 5-4 thriller in 2004 when Arsenal actually held onto its lead for the final two minutes in a surreal game that had Mourinho crying "five-four is a hockey score, not a football score." Or Spurs' 5-1 Carling Cup annihilation of the Gunners in 2008, a game that saw Nicklas Bendtner get in the face of teammate Emmanuel Adebayor (though no one thought Mr. Pink Boots would actually connect with a punch if he did indeed throw one) as the goals flooded in around them. Adebayor's response, after bloodying Nicky's nose? "Sometimes it does happen. A child can fight with his father and they are still friends."

[+] EnlargeSeamus Coleman and Lucas
Paul Ellis/Getty ImagesCrunching tackles are the order of the day in the Merseyside derby.

If Adebayor's the father -- and just the seventh player all-time to cross the River Styx from Arsenal to Spurs -- would the Gunners be the scorned ex hell-bent on revenge this weekend?

When Liverpool and Everton collide, the atmosphere can be every bit as combustible, with anxious partisans betting the over/under on who commits the first two-footed lunge of murderous intent (my money is on Jamie Carragher, but Phil Neville could sneak one in for his famously Liverpool-loathing brother, Gary). For hard-working Merseysiders who were raised to hold deep psychic grudges toward their neighbors, Stanley Park, the thin sliver of greenery separating the two stadia, is a No Man's Land, a demarcated zone where blue does not cross to Anfield and red dare not tread over to Goodison.

But despite their long-standing enmity, these matches have ebbed and flowed in counter-intuitive ways. In the pre-Prem days, when both sides were dominant, their mutual success didn't breed contempt, but rather produced derbies that were almost a cordial test of will. In the 2000s -- with Liverpool striving to keep pace with the Manchesters and Chelseas while Everton labored simply to remain relevant -- all that parochial goodwill disappeared, to be replaced with a seething, visceral hatred, not helped by the fact that the Reds have slowly strangled their rivals into submission: Everton has just four wins in 25 derbies since 2000.

When the mutual respect dried up, so did the goals, although they even had a 4-4 of their own in a 1991 FA Cup replay; the Reds' fluid pass-and-move game cued by Peter Beardsley had Liverpool leading four times only to be continually pegged back by the Toffees' determination and the spritely goal-scoring heroics of Tony Cottee, the super-sub whose brace forced Kenny Dalglish's men into another game. The sheer shock of the result had King Kenny handing in his resignation the following morning, stunning the nation, as the Reds were leading the league. You can guess what happened next: Liverpool choked away the title chase, and Everton won the replay.

[+] EnlargePaul Gascoigne
Simon Bruty/Getty ImagesTottenham's Paul Gascoigne inflicted psychic pain on Arsenal after the 1991 FA Cup semifinal.

Now that Dalglish has risen from the beyond for a second managerial stint at Anfield, he finds a different type of Everton awaiting him. Even with few resources, David Moyes has been able to throttle the sputtering, big-dreaming Reds, and Liverpool has responded in kind by turning its penalty area into an ad for Greyhound. Who can forget Sotirios Kyrgiakos' leg-snapping contretemps with Marouane Fellaini in 2010? Then there's Tim Cahill, a name synonymous with either Evertonian combativeness or Liverpudlian loathing, depending upon your jersey of choice. What is not debatable is Cahill's gift for poleaxing Reds players in the great tradition of Everton's legendary hard man Duncan Ferguson. That said, while Liverpool has often tried to pass its way around the flying tackles, King Kenny can call upon his own formidable street fighters: Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, who have shown a predilection to throw down and even, in Suarez's case, bite opponents on the neck.

So what to make of this weekend, with none of the four exactly causing Sir Alex sleepless nights? Expect a 1-0 win at Goodison for the Reds, though I'm not sure whether the 1 stands for a goal or a deployed ambulance. As for the North Londoners, I fear similar havoc but directed at the goalmouth, as Arsene Wenger can't squeeze enough Hail Marys in before kickoff to keep his squad healthy. The thought of the high-octane trio of Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale running at the uber-ponderous Per Mertesacker fills me with membrane-trembling dread, though I feel entirely confident that we won't concede eight.

Probably.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."