Thursday, March 21, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 18



Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Henry Jackson and Simon Curtis


Lady Luck



21st March 2019 An international break is normally the footballing equivalent of having to sit through Mrs Brown’s Boys when you’ve been treated to Alan Partridge, The Office and Peep Show for the rest of the year.

Time often moves backwards during these painfully dull periods, when you actually have to consider doing other things with your life. But not this time, though. Sure, there will be moments when the days are dragging and you force yourself to watch England play whichever instantly forgettable team they are up against, but this feels like some welcome respite.

This season has been exhausting. As a Liverpool fan, the business end of a campaign has too often been meaningless during my lifetime, with low-key matches on offer and the only enjoyment that of being able to watch other sets of fans suffering. Under Jurgen Klopp that has instantly changed, however, with every season under his tenure leading to huge occasions in March, April and May.

First there was the Europa League run, then there was a vital top-four finish, last season saw Champions League glory so nearly secured and this time around it is a Premier League title challenge of epic proportions. Every match has felt huge in 2018/19, even taking a physical and mental strain out of supporters who are simply watching at the ground or on televisions across the globe. Fulham away was meant to be a nice afternoon in the west London spring sunshine, but it ended up being a harrowing experience for anyone of a Reds persuasion, with yet more bizarre weather conditions thrown in.

Klopp’s men again failed to hit top gear away from home and they were rescued by the most grown-up, mentally resolute player in the squad. James Milner will never be a fashionable footballer, but he is worth his weight in gold in the big moments. Thank God he had been introduced by the time Sadio Mane won that late penalty, because the thought of anyone else standing over the ball would have been unbearable.

Mohamed Salah, despite being harshly criticised of late - he has contributed plenty despite not scoring - would most certainly have missed. Milner stroked home the spot-kick in his own nerveless manner, of course, sealing a monumental three points and saving the blushes of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, both of whom have been imperious this season but were woeful for Ryan Babel’s equaliser. Babel really didn’t want to tap that ball in, did he?

A special word of praise for Mane while I’m here. He has been magnificent in the last month or so, scoring 11 goals in as many games and really stepping up while others have floundered a little. He is to Liverpool what Bernardo Silva is to City currently, in terms of influence. I watched some of City’s ultimately predictable win at Swansea on Saturday and Silva was the man who inspired the comeback. He is a quite wonderful footballer, but as a Liverpool supporter, he is someone I also fear because of his winning mentality and underrated bite. See also: Sergio Aguero.

They are the pair who will produce in the big moments in these next few months, as well as the increasingly talismanic Raheem Sterling. City got extremely lucky at the Liberty Stadium, but I couldn’t waste my Saturday feeling irked by that. They were playing in a competition the Reds aren’t even in, for starters, and I have a title challenge to worry about. It did make the topic of luck come to the forefront of my mind, however - something that is unquestionably going to be key in the title race.

Any team in football history to have won trophies have required fortune on their way to glory, and there is no shame in admitting it. If City win the quadruple this season, it will be one of the greatest achievements in English football history, but they have faced endless weak opponents across several competitions. It has helped hugely.
Likewise, Liverpool needed enormous luck to win the 2005 Champions League, from Luis Garcia’s contentious ‘ghost goal’ to Jerzy Dudek’s almost unfathomable save to deny Andriy Shevchenko in the final against AC Milan.

There are seven and eight league matches remaining for the Reds and the Citizens, respectively, and I have no doubt that a few moments will either go in the favour of one team or badly against them. A horrific refereeing decision is around the corner, or perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime volley by a terrible opposition player. Maybe City’s captain will slip and gift Liverpool the title. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?

Whoever ends up sealing glory on May 12th will have fully deserved it, but the eventual champions will look back on key moments that benefited them during the season. Will it be Divock Origi’s fluky stoppage winner at home to Everton? Will Vincent Kompany avoiding a sending off against Liverpool prove pivotal? Or will it be something that hasn’t even occurred yet?

Bias is natural with any football supporter, but I do legitimately feel that the Reds are due some luck in a Premier League title race, having often not had it the few times they have challenged, most notably in 2001/02, 2008/09 and 2013/14.

Then again, I am convinced they used up all of it in Istanbul, so I can’t say I’m holding out too much hope. Anyway, I’m off to fill my time during this international break - whatever I end up doing in the next few weeks, it will be nice taking a step away from the exciting, nerve-shredding few months that will take place after it.
Fulham away for City next, which is a guaranteed three points, then Tottenham at home for the Reds. Please be ‘Spursy’, Spurs.

Henry Jackson



21st March 2019 – “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horsemen, pass by!”

The epitaph of Irish poet William Butler Yeats comes to mind as Twitter combusts with rage at the apparently undignified amount of luck coming the way of Manchester City this season.

Countless people have pointed out, between sharp intakes of oxygen, which sides City have drawn in the various cups this season. Without a hint of irony, what used to extract comments like “their name’s written on the Cup this season”, now provokes a Ladslide of cheats and frauds comments. Such is life in the choppy waters of Brexit, Fake News and social media intolerance. We live in truly enlightened times.

In drawing the likes of Rotherham and Burton Albion (in a semi final just to make Jake from Wigan froth even more) and Brighton and Swansea and Oxford and Hoffenheim, some forget that you can also draw Derby County early on in a cup competition and go no further than that. Drawing Tottenham in Europe's last eight this season does not negate the fact that City have had serial squabbles with Bayern and Barcelona in their short stay on the continent. Uli Hoeness, unlucky to be caught evading paying tax, has long pushed for a Champions League formula that reduces luck to a manageable minimum, a safeguard, a reward for being, well, Bayern Munich, but he might like to join Jake from Wigan in reflecting on luck's rich bounty. For a man fortunate enough to have survived a 1982 light aircraft crash in which his three co-travellers expired, he may like to dwell with the rest of us on just how inextricably linked we all are to the fickle finger of fate. 

There is, despite today’s badly skewed playing field, a good chance of failure, even if the magic balls have placed you favourably. City fans know this better than most, having followed a club that has had more public mishaps in our domestic cup competitions than it would be polite to recall just now. You can’t go far in listing lower league clubs before one nightmare memory or another pops up enthusiastically.

To misquote Richard Dawkins, and who doesn’t these days, “we are going to Wembley and aren’t we the lucky ones”. Because, obviously, to reach Wembley twice, with the distinct prospect of a third trip if the FA Cup semi final v Brighton turns out well, is pretty lucky. 

But then luck evens itself out, doesn’t it?  Whoever said that one had eaten too many grapes for his tea. All winning sides appear to have more luck. It could emanate from the amount of attacking they do in relation to their opponents. Find yourself dancing coquettishly around Huddersfield’s penalty box for 85 minutes and someone at some point is going to stick an ill-considered leg out and make a plum of himself. Liverpool witnessed this very scenario last weekend, while making heavy weather of a passive aggressive Fulham side visibly preparing itself for ignominious relegation.

With Virgil van Dijk’s weak header back and Alisson Becker’s indecisive goalkeeping putting the equaliser on a plate for ex-Liverpool man Ryan Babel, the Craven Cottage fixture looked set to provide one of those eagerly awaited slip-ups that the press tell us both clubs are bound to have on the run-in. Luckily anything Alisson could construct in the way of flip-flappery, Sergio Rico at the other end could better. It can be said with some certainty that, on recruiting the Spaniard – replete with full national team honours – Fulham had not been expecting antics of this calibre. Rico flapped at Sadio Mane in the box as the striker was making his way quietly away from goal, giving away a penalty as priceless to Liverpool as it was ridiculously unnecessary for Fulham and, in extension, painful for City.

Cue James Milner to wrap up the points. The exhalations of relief in the away end could be heard on the other side of the Thames. You get the feeling, ever so slightly, that Liverpool are beginning to hang on a little. The early season fluidity has become staunched, the muscles are tense, the minds are busy turning over all the permutations that the final eight games may bring.

Feeling lucky
Throw in a couple of clashes with FC Porto and Liverpool – fans and players alike – will be sharply aware of how much there is to win - and lose - in the final weeks. Liverpool, with a game less in the league and two less in the FA Cup, a comfy-looking run-in and a tame Champions League draw, might feel a touch lucky. City too, with Spurs to entertain in the Champions League, came out of yet another cup draw smelling of roses. With FA Cup duties and the lion’s share of their league programme away from home, perhaps lucky isn’t the most apt word, however. Whatever the outlook, both sides will be counting on the hand of fate pushing them over the line. Relying solely on tired limbs and wavering minds in what still threatens to be a thrilling climax to the season might not be enough.

Dawkins stated, “The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth”. We are lucky to be here. Despite the odds, we are alive and kicking. The spotlight has passed from some onto others. Now is their time, now is our time. Gather what you have left and head for the finishing line. And may luck go with you every step of the way.

-       Simon Curtis


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 17


Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Henry Jackson and Simon Curtis

Role Reversal



12th March 2019 As City hit the top of the table, finally hauling in an advantage that was as wide as ten points at one point at the turn of the year, so the wheels began to turn, slowly, slowly, grinding and creaking into action. 

A moment that was to be celebrated by club and fans alike turned into a tidal wave of bad press. Coincidence? Well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? Amid investigations for everything from FFP breaches to whether Jamie Pollock was on steroids when he biffed in that 1997 own goal, City’s arrival at the summit has been shrouded in a media circus of who, what, why and when. That all of this could have been launched in the retrospective calm of the close season does not appear to have been an item for consideration and, instead, those of a sky blue nature are left to make up their own minds about what is behind the timing and the spread of glad tidings. 

In the meantime, having seen a decent lead frittered away and, after a gale-affected derby draw with Everton, finally being overtaken at the top of the table, Liverpool must be wondering just what they have to do to win this league title. It has been an astonishing season from Jurgen Klopp’s team and the criticism now beginning to reach their ears from some quarters is hardly well-placed. They will not be expecting too many plaudits either. Second place is second place, after all, but their form has been almost perfect and they are running stride for stride with one of the Premier League’s all-time best sides. .
Hold on a minute, I'm confused

Despite the doubts cast over some of the financial machinations of a club that has risen dizzyingly fast to the levels of the old elite, on-field questions are all being answered strongly and clearly. For the second week running opponents presented themselves in a shape that suggested hibernation was the only answer. Having struggled to get past a woefully unambitious Bournemouth side, City found Watford equally unwilling to play ball. It is their prerogative, of course, but begs the question what do you do when the dam wall eventually springs a leak? 

Raheem Sterling’s first of three involved a bizarre face-off between rookie referee Paul Tierney and his linesman, before they finally came to the convoluted conclusion that Daryl Jaanmat’s block tackle on Sterling had changed the balance, but there was no doubting the fact that the home side got their just desserts in the end. Liverpool too were put through an early hoop or too by an agricultural Burnley side at Anfield, before prevailing 4-2. The damage, though, if we can call it that, was done at Goodison, where a feisty but limited Everton rolled Liverpool out of their stride to prevent them getting the three points they needed to stay out in front.

This scenario is likely to change back again after the next games, as City take on Swansea in the Cup, while Liverpool have league duties against an almost-relegated Fulham. Moving back into pole position will be a useful psychological fillip with so few games to play and the fixture list will allow that to become a five point gap if they also beat Spurs before City play again in the league. 

As City also visit Craven Cottage next in the league, a direct comparison of the teams’ behaviour and progress in the same fixture will be possible. Will Fulham prove a tricky obstacle owing to yet another new manager, or will they continue to be as wide open as a barn door as of recent weeks? You get the feeling how both City and Liverpool deal with the same fixture will tell us plenty. 

Points in the bag or games in hand? It’s an old topic that has been visited before. City's current overload of fixtures does not seem to be having an adverse effect. The League Cup sits on the shelf at the Etihad, while Schalke have just been dismissed on a convincing 10-2 aggregate in the Champions League. Swansea await in the FA Cup and Liverpool wait patiently for the signs of fatigue and stress that might give them hope. City plough on, meanwhile, towards the unthinkable, unspeakable achievement that may not be as far fetched as some thought a few months back. 

As far as the league is concerned, surely the security of points is a good thing, but the knowledge that City are the English game’s best team at hauling in advantages to win the league will not help those at Anfield sleep soundly over the coming weeks. Nevertheless they can still dream of the title and, to be able to say that at this stage of the season, is proof positive of the magnificent effort all have put in to get them so close to realising that dream.   

– Simon Curtis



12th March 2019 - I was sat at Anfield at approximately 12:15pm on Sunday feeling deeply hard done by. The whole world seemed like it was against anyone of a Liverpool persuasion.

The Reds found themselves 1-0 down to rugby-playing team in Burnley, to a joke of a goal. Alisson, clearly impeded by James Tarkowski, was incredulous about a foul not being given, and that sinking feeling came flooding back. At least two goals required to win, against a horrible side. All I heard from beside me was my dad, who hadn’t been all season until that point, mumble, “I’m a bloody curse on this team”. My look told him exactly what I thought.

We had sat in a bar the previous evening seeing luck benefit Man City greatly, with Raheem Sterling’s incorrect opener turning the game on its head. (A quick word on Sterling, before I continue this sob story. He is someone I have so much time for.
He has been magnificent this season, producing the kind of response David Beckham did after similar abuse after the 1998 World Cup. At least the criticism Beckham received was partly justified!

For me, Sterling is now Virgil van Dijk’s main rival for the two end-of-season Player of the Year awards, with Sergio Aguero in the mix as well. As he scored his third of the night against Watford, I found myself happy for him, rather than angry about another City goal going in. It pleases me to see the tide turning with regards to the way in
which he is perceived both on and off the pitch. Hats off to him.

Not for a second did I expect Watford to get anything from that game, even at half-time, but decisions like that first goal still leave you feeling infuriated. To see that happen to City and then Liverpool have such fortune go against them felt unjust, and I
sat at Anfield convincing myself I was witnessing the title race ending before my very eyes.

Craven Cottage: both Liverpool and City visit next
Then the Reds reminded me that they are not the Reds of old - spineless outfits who would never win once they went behind, and who would drop endlessly soft points at home to weaker opposition. No team has won more points from losing positions this season and Liverpool showcased their ability to battle back from adversity in style, in bizarre weather conditions.

The sign of true ‘bottlers’, right?

People can poke fun at Jurgen Klopp all they like for using the wind as an excuse recently, but when you’re in the ground witnessing it firsthand you realise the effect it has on a ball-playing team. It was on another level on Sunday, with a specific area of the pitch out towards the Kemlyn Road bordering on laughable.

One ball was rolling out for a throw-in, only to spin back behind Mohamed Salah and effectively allow him to beat a man without doing anything. Liverpool didn’t let that bother them, though, or Burnley’s scandalous early attempts to waste time, and Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane had soon turned the game on its head in an instant.

It all felt plain sailing from then on, apart from when Burnley made it 3-2 in stoppage time, then sent a cross into the windy sky almost straight after.

I almost fainted as Alisson came for it, but as he (eventually) grasped hold of the ball with both hands, it felt like the most glorious of releases. Mane did the rest with seconds remaining, as the Reds picked up what I believe to be one of their most important, and impressive, win of the season so far. Many of those watching the Premier League title race unfold appear to be waiting for Liverpool to tail off, just like Tottenham have in such emphatic fashion.

The Reds won’t, though. There is every chance they won’t win the league come May, but they will not be going away until the death. You don’t accumulate your joint-best-ever points tally after 30 matches, for a club with 18 league titles, without being a fantastic football team with bags of belief. The dynamic has switched up at the top, with Liverpool becoming the chasers and City reaching the Premier League’s summit. It should only be a momentary thing, however, as City face FA Cup commitments this weekend and
Klopp’s men head to Fulham. If you want to win the league, you have to beat the team in 19th place, and that extra incentive of returning to the top should aid the Reds further.

Yes, they will have played a game more than City by Sunday night, but it could put that extra bit of mental pressure on the champions in the coming weeks.

Incidentally, by the time City themselves go to Fulham on March 30th, Liverpool could have a five-point advantage, should they see off the Cottagers and beat Southampton at St Mary’s on the Friday night. The latter is not an easy one at all, particularly as Saints are the latest club to create a weird rivalry with the Reds, simply because they have signed a lot of their best players. In some ways I loathe Liverpool being chased, in terms of it not being good for my health, but the pressure it puts on those below you not to come a cropper means it is always the position you want to be in.

City have been fantastic since Newcastle away, not always hitting top gear but showing precisely why their tally over the last two seasons is beyond belief. I haven’t expected a single slip-up since that shock defeat at St James’ Park and they have proved
me right. Frankly, I am still relatively resigned to the fact that they will prevail in every remaining fixture, too, which while bitterly unfair, is also something I would accept and applaud.

Dealing with the pressure of being behind again can only be an added hurdle to overcome, so hopefully Liverpool can breeze past Fulham, nick a win at Southampton and then sit back and watch their rivals. It would have to be Fulham they face in the league next, wouldn’t it? Haven’t they played them eight times already this season?

-       Henry Jackson


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

DIGGING IN



The first concrete evidence of what Manchester City will be remembered for in this 2018-19 season has landed on the mat. The League Cup, much loved by City supporters of all ages, somewhat maligned by others. In itself, a simple stamp of confirmation that what Pep Guardiola’s men have done so far this season has been good enough to beat the competition, but - in the way it was hauled in - much more than just that.

Awful strain that it was, the win over Chelsea might just be the easy part. What comes next might require a little more of, well, almost everything City have to offer.

What comes next is increasing pressure, a hill of injuries to adjust to and tired legs and brains that sometimes whisper “we can do this” and other times mutter “I can’t manage anymore”. City’s task to emulate last season’s incredible march always seemed, in one sense, utterly impossible. The league campaign – so perfect in its numbers and in its abandoned accomplishment – could never be repeated. Not the inflated numbers at least. Liverpool are making a grand fist of turning this year’s title race into a proper rush for the line. You get the feeling the last thing City need at this point is the prospect of a sprint finish after playing so many games since August. A gentle stroll through April while conserving energy for the two remaining cups would be just dandy.

But a sprint is how it looks. Gird up your loins and stretch those tired muscles one more time. City’s titles have almost all been won in the chase however, making last season’s romp a stand-out curiosity.  

The mind goes back to those sun-drenched May days when Sergio Aguero brought the house down and, two years later, when Liverpool were squeezed out. Even the mighty 1968 League Championship win came in a nail-biting thriller on the very last day at St James’ Park, Newcastle.

City have never been a club to do things the easy way, witness the raft of last day of the season agonies they have put us all through. In that respect those watching from the sidelines are ready for almost anything and that could be a good thing.

A late burst in Gelsenkirchen boosts morale
Schalke and Chelsea have proved that City can win while playing below par, while being stretched to the limit and being closed down, chased and harried. The cost has been enormous, however, with damage to Aymeric Laporte, City's best defender this season, and Fernandinho, City’s most important midfielder. With David Silva far from his best and Kevin de Bruyne struggling to find his old form after injury, Guardiola’s side will do well to maintain momentum in the coming cluttered weeks of desperate all-or-nothing football. The gaze now falls optimistically on Danilo, on Ilkay Gundogan and the fast-blossoming Alex Zinchenko, then it falls on Real Madrid and Bayern and Barcelona.

Tired legs must be coaxed into yet more thrusting action, against – in the FA Cup and Champions League – the best that are left and – in the league – against teams that themselves will be desperate to grab their own goals, be they survival, European qualification or simply stretching a leg in the way of someone else’s giddy progress.

The chatter about a quadruple fills the air with tiny, scolding bubbles. Can it be done? Is it right to even consider it? The very thought makes you cringe, cross and uncross your legs like someone is asking you questions that are too uncomfortable to answer. So many pitfalls, so many barriers, so many reasons it cannot happen. As each argument against it tumbles in trying circumstances - a two goal blast from nowhere to save the game at the death in Gelsenkirchen, an hour and a half slog against Chelsea to scrape through on the narrowness of a "top bins" Raheem Sterling penalty – the possibility gains a little oxygen. Then you realise there could, there must, be another 20 games if that particular dream is to take realistic shape. 
That is right where the mysticism and the motivation of the best managers the sport has to offer will start to come into play.

“I don’t want to see excuses about tiredness, fixtures, schedules or how many games. That is nothing. When you have the dream to fight until the end, to retain the title, the power and the energy to give you that, it is higher than any excuses you can find.” - Pep Guardiola

Looking at the spent faces of victory, the rolled down socks and discarded boots, you could sense the toll these games are now taking. But there is no greater fillip than victory. That allied to the news that Liverpool’s venture to Old Trafford had revealed a rival low on energy and unwilling (or unable) to showcase that special magic that marks out potential title winners. Instead of grinding a telling victory on difficult terrain, they sat solid and helpless and played out a chunky, unappetising draw instead.

It was just what Chelsea would be busy doing a couple of hundred miles further south at Wembley an hour or so later. City, however, have the nous and the character to prevail in these circumstances. They have a team of winners, a group whose minds are stoically fixed on the target and who do not seem to take easily to the contemplation of lesser alternatives. If Schalke had been a brilliantly unexpected power surge, the attrition of Wembley ticked all the other boxes: steadfast belief, solidity, sang-froid and the energy and nous to get over that finishing line in one piece.

After the pomp and circumstance, the countless flourishes of poetic beauty last season, you get the feeling Manchester City’s 2019 vintage is made of even sterner stuff. Whether it can withstand the battering that spring will bring is another matter, but right now there is enough oxygen for everyone.
Rhine barges in Düsseldorf re-enacting the Premier League title race  







Monday, February 18, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 16


Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Henry Jackson and Simon Curtis

Days of Fire





18th February 2019 Last week, I genuinely found myself thinking Liverpool’s next game was away to Man United on Sunday.

The imminent clash with Bayern Munich didn’t even register in my mind, which considering I adore the Champions League, sums up what a focal point in my mind the Premier League is this season. The overreaction surrounding Liverpool’s back-to-back draws was predictably proved laughable last time they took to the field, as the Reds hit form with a 3-0 win over Bournemouth that should have seen them score five or six.

It was more the Liverpool of last season than the often pragmatic side of this campaign, with a return to a 4-3-3 formation and both Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino excelling in their 2017/18 roles.

An uncharacteristic 4-1 to Liverpool in 2009
Both the performance and the result felt significant because it silenced the many doubters, or to be more precise, those people trying desperately to pretend Liverpool are ‘bottling’ it. Those individuals know they’re not really, don’t they? But whatever makes them feel better. And what about City the following day? I guess it’s time for me to show how much I ‘hate’ them, further igniting this bitter ‘rivalry’ taking place currently.

There will be no such thing in fact, I’m afraid.

City were absolutely majestic in their mauling of Chelsea, and while I was obviously desperate for them to drop points, once it was 2-0 I could essentially sit back and laugh at the west Londoners - probably the worst club and worst set of supporters in England.

I really don’t mind City at all, they just happen to be Liverpool’s direct rivals currently. I’ve reached the stage where I’m now excepting them to win every remaining game, as mentioned in the past, with any dropped points the most beautiful of bonuses. That isn’t some lame attempt at reverse psychology, however. I do think they will probably win the lot now. If they do, and Liverpool drop three or four points and fall short with a club record points tally, fair play to them.

Anyway, a new week begins and the Champions League takes precedence, which I am back to being deeply excited about.

It is a competition that is engrained in Liverpool, very much unlike City, and the pain of Kiev last year will act as an added incentive. It means the world to anyone associated with the club, from supporters to owners.

The Champions League does feel like a free hit for Liverpool this season, though, regardless of whether or not they end up ‘bottling’ the league title.

Everybody knows what the primary objective is and another long run in the Champions League would simply be a nice addition, and further cement the Reds’ place as one of Europe’s top four or five sides. If they go out to Bayern, I won’t lose a huge amount of sleep, disappointing though it would be. It will be one less competition to worry about, allowing players to find peak levels of fitness in the title run-in.

Many won’t share that view, and in truth, the Bayern match does still feel like a big one. The only time Liverpool have played them in my 25 years supporting the Reds was in the 2001 Super Cup.

It feels new and fresh, rather than playing the same old teams season in, season out, most notably when Liverpool vs. Chelsea seemed to take place about 14 times a year during the mid-2000s. Bayern are the ageing powerhouse with lingering brilliance, while Jurgen Klopp’s side are the exuberant young outfit on its way to being a true European heavyweight again.

With Liverpool depleted at the back, the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Franck Ribery could have field days, but Bayern’s back-line is creaky and the pace of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah could wreak havoc. There will be goals - that’s about all I can predict.

City, meanwhile, head to Schalke, as they continue their impressive run of remarkably easy cup draws this season. I’m not bitter, I promise, but it would be nice to see them given at least a slight challenge. The champions will cruise through that tie with consummate ease, possibly putting it to bed on Wednesday night, leaving them primed for the League Cup final against Chelsea.

It’s quite nice not having the stress of also watching City play in the league this weekend! Much as the Bayern game is an exciting prospect, and clearly a big game, my mind is still predominantly on Old Trafford. This is Liverpool’s game in hand, with City not playing in the league because of their aforementioned trip to Wembley, and the final outcome in Manchester really does feel significant.

The Reds are abysmal away to United, regardless of form, injuries and whatever else you can think of. It is just one win there since 2009 and even that was against a David Moyes side, which shouldn’t really count. I’m weighing up every possibility in my head, from last-minute winners for either side to a pathetic red card decision against Liverpool - that feels particularly likely, probably after Mane is accused of pinching Ashley Young - but a victory would be an almighty step in the right direction.

A draw would be fine, too, even though there would likely be a meltdown about it simply because modern football fans are fools. It would literally put Liverpool back to the top of the Premier League, with destiny in their own hands.

Defeat is also a strong possibility, with United keen to actually do City a favour, which is all fairly bizarre. Then again, us Reds supporters are going to be ‘unbearable’ if win the title apparently, whereas the whole country hasn’t been singing about our former captain falling over for the last five years, has it? They’ve not been unbearable at all!

I’ll put my neck on the line and say that if Liverpool win at Old Trafford they will win the title, but I don’t think that will happen. A point apiece feels most likely.

The Bayern match could take a lot out of the players which is a concern, but the returning Virgil van Dijk makes everything feel better in the world. While City are in London likely celebrating their first trophy of the season, the hope is that they are also not lauding their local rivals for their efforts a couple of hours earlier. I’d like that champagne to be that little bit less enjoyable on the Wembley turf, with Guardiola and his players all aware that Liverpool are not going away without a fight.

– Henry Jackson



18th February 2019 - A big, big week in prospect.

Liverpool, fresh from an easy stroll against a flaccid Bournemouth side, look to their European adventure against a below-par Bayern and follow that with an absolutely crucial visit to Old Trafford in the league. Meanwhile City renew old acquaintances with Schalke, a European fixture dating back to 1970 no less, and follow that up with the first Wembley final of the season, in the League Cup v. Chelsea.

If all goes well for City, there could be a trophy on the sideboard (which would be the first time the club has retained anything other than a reputation for standing on its own feet), a step taken towards the Champions League quarter finals plus a stutter for their rivals at the home of nearest and dearest United, no doubt suddenly desperate to help City along the way, after all those years of laughing at their comical cousins.

Liverpool’s task against Bayern is difficult to size up. The Germans are in nondescript but improving form this season with a visibly ageing squad and the wrong fit for manager. Bayern still have a squad packed with talent but their star is waning and the results have not been coming so far this season, Dortmund allowed to pull out a significant lead in the Bundesliga. A stuttering 3-2 win at Augsburg at the weekend was typical of what has gone by so far in 2018-19.

I am ancient enough to remember a critical Liverpool-Bayern European Cup semi final in 1981. Strangely, that game also involved a defensive personnel crisis for Liverpool, with Alan Kennedy and Phil Thompson missing from the back four for an away tie in the second leg that would decide who went through to the final in Paris.

This was a night in which the Bavarians revealed all of their well known humility by handing out leaflets outside the ground before the second leg informing their supporters what the arrangements were for the final that they were not yet in. A goalless first leg at Anfield had left them quietly confident that progress could be achieved and that warm feeling inside must have been exacerbated by the sight of Richard Money and Colin Irwin striding out at a packed Olympic Stadium in Munich.

90 minutes later and the leaflets were being tossed en masse in the Munich street bins as Ray Kennedy’s strike put Liverpool through in a 1-1 draw, that late away goal being decisive. Namesake Alan was back in time for the final, where he famously hit the winner. A draw at Anfield this time round will almost certainly bring a more measured response from Karl Heniz Rummenigge (who played in the 81 games), Uli Hoeness and their acolytes.

Liverpool’s trip to Old Trafford seems the more important of the two matches, however. The Kop may get a little feverish over its European occasions, but the bread and butter remains both clubs’ number one priority in a title race that is bringing the best out of both sides. The execrable record Liverpool bring with them to United augurs well for City fans, but this season’s challengers are made of sterner stuff than of recent years.

City's scorers v Schalke in 2008, Benjani and Ireland celebrate one of the two goals in Gelsenkirchen

City meanwhile have hit a rich vein of form at just the right moment. After the goal avalanches against the minnows of Burton and Rotherham, nobody expected another one against Chelsea. The first 45 minutes represented a sublime example of how to totally crush a title rival with a blast off the starting line that rendered the second half an exhibition. Sides will by now be well aware of City’s fast starts, an attempt to put games to bed before the half time whistle sounds, but combatting them is another thing altogether.Schalke will be aware of this, plus the fact that the last visit by City to the grand Veltins Arena brought goals from Benjani and Stephen Ireland in a successful UEFA Cup visit in 2008. How times change, the locals will be musing. That year saw Daniel Sturridge playing upfront for City and Paris St Germain sharing their UEFA Cup group.  

With the much maligned Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan chipping in with goals and assists (Mahrez with a surprisingly lofty 10 of each so far this season, despite being far from a regular pick) and Phil Foden shining brightly whenever he gets the chance, which is increasingly often, City’s squad players are chipping in handsomely and momentum is gaining ominously.

The difficulty of balancing so many games will be offset by the end of the League Cup campaign this weekend and by the long trail of victories that have followed a sticky December. Nothing breeds confidence like going out and winning so convincingly time after time. After last season’s record-shattering season, the follow up was always going to be tough to manage. That City are doing so by heading towards March still in with the chance of an unprecedented quadruple speaks volumes for this squad's professionalism and the drive and organisation of the coaching staff. 

This time last year the title looked to be a stroll This season can only see an increase in pressure as time goes by. Pep Guardiola’s squad of winners will have no problem with that, having been there before on numerous occasions. Liverpool can point to losing finals in the League Cup (ironically against City) and the Champions League as examples of their big pressure games of recent seasons. Distracting his squad’s mind from the fact that both games left Liverpool empty-handed will be Jurgen Klopp’s major challenge as the going continues to hot up.

-       Simon Curtis




Thursday, February 7, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 15



City Copying Liverpool’s Age-old Winning Mentality


Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Henry Jackson and Simon Curtis





7th February 2019 It is a freezing cold Boxing Day 1981 and the Anfield pitch is patchy and pocked with divots and sand hills. Liverpool, those eternal winners of the 70s are stuttering their way into the second half of the 1981-82 season like half frozen amateurs. Richard Bott, doyen of the Sunday Express is moved by the spectacle before his eyes to write the following words as an intro to his piece from a startling afternoon's action on Merseyside:

“After 28 years Manchester City know how sweet is the taste of a league victory at Anfield. But as they charge their glasses to toast the New Year, there will be bitterness in the hearts of all true Liverpool supporters…”
Bott might have been referring to the shock 1-3 defeat to a team for whom wins at Anfield were as rare as hen’s teeth, but in fact was talking about an incident in the second half when the Kop, growing restless at a damp squib of a Liverpool performance, produced an infamous piece of theatre still remembered to this day.


From within its listless, disgruntled body of support, a wine bottle had flown out and struck City's Joe Corrigan on the head. The big 'keeper had required several minutes of careful medical attention before carrying on, with – it has to be acknowledged – the sound of the Kop behind him singing “England’s Number One” to him as recompense. 

City’s win had been an astonishing 28 years in the pipeline and there would be a wait of a further 22 years before Nicolas Anelka’s double rocked the Kop End of the ground again for City’s next victory on Liverpool’s holy soil. Incredible numbers in themselves, but not really what I am trying to illustrate here. The defeat in 1981 left champions Liverpool trailing in the somewhat unknown territory for them of 12th place, behind such luminaries as Brighton, Forest, Ipswich and even Everton. 

Table after the games of Boxing Day 1981
Leaders Swansea were a full 11 points up on Liverpool at that stage. A funny thing happened just after that Boxing Day massacre, however. Two days later City walloped Wolves to go top of the table and the excitement around John Bond’s side’s title push reached fever pitch. The next time the two sides met was at Easter, at a sunlit Maine Road. It was 10th April and what we will call normal service had been resumed. A 5-0 romp for Liverpool sent them five points clear at the top of the table. The league title would be theirs within weeks, a monumental turnaround that bears few precedents in modern times.

City, of course have built their own modern day reputation for fighting till the end, witness their 
Table after the Easter games 10th April 1982
first two league title wins in the recent surge back to the top of English football. First Manchester United then Liverpool were hauled in with almost no breathing space left as City edged through under Roberto Mancini and recent Liverpool nemesis Manuel Pellegrini.  

If City win this year’s title it will also be quite a feat. From a sizeable gap a month ago, City’s nervy win at Goodison has edged them back in front of a puffing and panting Liverpool side. City’s great advantage is what has been illustrated above. As with those wonderful Liverpool sides of the 70s and 80s, they know how and when to win. Years of winning crucial games has left them with an obvious big match mentality. Some games last season were operated on a strictly auto pilot basis and, while this term’s form has been too patchy for that kind of controlled drifting, there is a feeling about Guardiola’s men that says they will and can turn it on when they have to. Arsenal was a case in point, although it is perhaps dubious these days to claim Arsenal present a proper challenge to would-be title winners, so far has their star fallen in recent times. Chelsea may provide a better litmus test of City credentials this weekend and will also provide us with a pointer for this month’s Caraboa Cup final at the same time.

Certainly the win over Liverpool at the Etihad at the end of the year was a case in point. The crowd was up for it, as were the players and the result was there for all to see. It is that game more than any home draws with Leicester and away stalemates at West Ham which has set the Anfield cat amongst the pigeons. Liverpool know they are good enough to beat most of the rest of the league. They know their improvement this season has been vast, but they had been waiting all season to see if they could get the better of their main rivals for the title. That they couldn’t will have amplified every grain of self doubt that exists at Anfield. There is no getting away from the fact that City were too hot to handle, proving their quality and credentials.

This creeping self doubt was evident in the draw at West Ham, where Liverpool looked nervy and unsure of themselves. West Ham captain Mark Noble noted the same from close up, saying he and his team mates could see how nervous the Liverpool players were under the pressure of scrutiny from the football world on a Monday night. The disability seemed to grip the entire team too. Alisson’s clearances were shanked into touch, Joel Matip ran time and again into trouble, Keita and Fabinho delivered cheap possession back to the Hammers and Firmino went through the full repertoire of the Man Who Has Lost His Mojo. Salah and Mane were quiet and unable to influence the flow of events. Even manager Klopp decided the luck of getting an offside goal to start things rolling was not enough to stop him complaining vehemently about the referee's performance. It was all quite a spectacle. 

Liverpool’s injuries will certainly be cited in some quarters as having an effect, but all teams suffer these kinds of setbacks and City have suffered more than most on this front. Kevin de Bruyne’s sumptuous through ball to Gabriel Jesus for City’s 97th minute clincher at Goodison was a timely reminder of what the team has been missing for so many months this season. That clinical eye for an opening made a very welcome return and is likely to play an increasingly important role in the rest of the club’s season as the Belgian regains match fitness and hones that intricate passing technique. Liverpool, shorn of some of their influential performers, can only groan at the timing of De Bruyne’s return. City, meanwhile, working up a head of steam at just the right time, are taking a leaf out of the great Liverpool success stories of the past. That winning mentality never really leaves you and when the going gets tough your big game players start to come to the fore. 


For Liverpool, the big players are either missing or malfunctioning. Bournemouth, notoriously bad travellers, can provide a fillip this weekend, but anything less than a clear victory will continue the gnawing process of self-doubt that was set in motion on that calamitous night at the Etihad in late December.

Simon Curtis



7th February 2019 - Tuesday, January 29th: elation. Wednesday, February 6th: deflation. I hate football at times.

From the moment City lost at Newcastle, things have gone pear-shaped for Liverpool, at least in the context of this relentless title race. A glorious chance to open up a seven-point lead gone, a predictably feeble performance by Arsenal at the Etihad, a limp showing at West Ham and Everton replicating the Gunners’ generous antics has seen the title race take another twist.

The West Ham game was a curiously flat night for anyone of a Reds persuasion, whether it be Jurgen Klopp, his players or even the fans inside the London Stadium. 

You would have expected them to fly at their opponents, proving a point to City after they cruised past Arsenal, but it was the opposite. It felt like an April game when the Reds are sixth in the table with nothing to play for. When Sadio Mane put Liverpool ahead, aided by the latest hapless piece of officiating, it still didn’t feel right. The energy was lacking, the passing wasn’t crisp and the equaliser was inevitable. From that point on, a win was never coming the visitors’ way. West Ham fully merited getting a point in the end and arguably deserved all three. They were excellent, particularly Declan Rice, who looks one hell of a prospect. 


I hate talking about injuries but I’m going to talk about injuries. Liverpool were unquestionably hampered by them, making for a mishmash of a display that never clicked at any point  Joel Matip is looking more inept by the game and is even a major step down from the error-prone Dejan Lovren, whose stock is rising purely by being out of the team. Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s continued absence at the back is particularly troublesome, however, with two of England’s brightest young players adding so much when they play. They are already indispensable.

A makeshift defence featuring James Milner at right-back looked all at sea throughout, with even near-perfect duo Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson not at their best.

"Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are also influential figures who were unavailable, with a midfield-three of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Adam Lallana taking to the field for the first time together."

Any team without four such prominent players is going to struggle and this West Ham side are dangerous when they want to be. Under the lights of the London Stadium, with the whole country watching on, it was always going to be tough. A quick word on Roberto Firmino, by the way, who is Liverpool’s most unique, intelligent player - arguably my favourite in red - but who played like a hungover 50-year-old on a Sunday morning at the local rec. He was truly horrific.

After the final whistle, the predictable comments surrounding Liverpool being ‘bottlers’ and crumbling under pressure resurfaced, but this is a minor speed bump in an otherwise fantastic season. They are under pressure for sure, and are a young side who may not always cope with it to perfection, but don’t let two draws fool you. I fully understand that it’s all part of the tribalism that exists these days, and yes the Reds have pathetically only won one trophy in the last 12 years, but this lot are not bottlers. As someone naturally pessimistic as a football fan, take my word for it.

They haven’t even lost during this two-game lull, for christ sake, and have only been beaten once in the Premier League all season. They are on course for the best points total in the club’s entire history. A club with 18 league titles and five European Cups under their belt. Bloody bottlers. If they don’t win the title this season it will be for one reason only: they are up against a wonderful City team who look increasingly like peaking at just the right time.

There was no chance Liverpool were ever going to win at the Etihad last month, opening up a 10-point lead in the process. It all sounded too perfect, and frankly, Pep Guardiola and his numerous world-class players were never going to allow it to happen. This resurgence is no surprise in the slightest - Guardiola is over-egging it, which I get - and it isn’t some remarkable turnaround like Manchester United managed in 1995/96, or City did to their local rivals late on in 2011/12. But the narrative doesn’t allow you to think that way, does it? Liverpool have supposedly lost about four in a row and their rivals have gained 15 points on them! Since the turn of the year, City have picked up 12 points from a possible 15, while Liverpool have collected eight from 12. That includes the meeting between the pair, when City were both expected to win and slightly fortunate to. So, the Reds have dropped one more point than City and not lost in 2019 to date. What a crisis.

The biggest concern from a Liverpool perspective shouldn’t be the team not recovering from back-to-back draws - they will - it’s what City are now capable of.
They know how to win, which is a huge advantage. The ability to get over the finish line can be a priceless asset, as Real Madrid have shown in winning three Champions Leagues in a row. They haven’t been the best team in Europe that time, not even close. They just built up a winning mentality that proved unstoppable, as well as benefiting from endless poor refereeing decisions and good fortune.

City’s defeat at Newcastle may begin to feel like an increasing anomaly, I fear, with the reigning champions in such control of every match I watch.

They have strong characters throughout the team, from the still underrated Ederson right the way through to Sergio Aguero, who is in such good form I fear him every time City play. Fernandinho could be one of the most snide players in Premier League history, which is a huge compliment from someone who adores a snide player in his own team (Liverpool lack them). He is a born winner. His ability to commit about 54 yellow card offences a game and rarely even get booked is unfathomable, and he is also a master a winning his own free-kicks. Bernardo Silva is what I like to call an underrated snide, too - a player who isn’t tagged as a master of the dark arts because he is a creative talent. See also: Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso and Dennis Bergkamp, to name but a few. 


He is a horrible little pest, getting in the faces of referees, wasting time and generally being a nuisance. If you hadn’t noticed this, it sums up why he is an underrated snide (and a fantastic footballer)! So, on we go to the next batch of fixtures. For all that has been said, you could be forgiven for thinking Liverpool are now about five points adrift and in danger of falling away completely.

In case you missed it, they will go top again with a win or a draw against ournemouth, having played the same number of games as City. Not bad for a team supposedly falling apart. Of course, fresh question marks will be raised if they fall short against the Cherries, not least the question of “what in god’s name happened on that training camp in Dubai?”, but I expect both a tough game and a return to winning ways.

City will beat Chelsea as well, with Eden Hazard no doubt getting prepared to shrink at the Etihad before turning into Lionel Messi at Anfield in April. They are in total command at the minute and don’t see how the west Londoners a) keep them out and b) cause them enough problems going forward.

If you think I’ll be one of those childish fans revelling in ‘bottlers’ Liverpool being top again for 24 hours all least, should it happen, you would be absolutely correct.
It’s no more pathetic than the many who have overreacted to two below-par draws against two of the strongest teams outside the ‘big six’. 

City are undoubted favourites in my book, but don’t go writing Liverpool off just yet.

–Henry Jackson




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