Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis
Moral Indignation and the Loss of Mojo
31st October 2018 – A week is a long time in football.
Good grief indeed. For Liverpool, what started as a campaign to treasure, the sense of finally being in a position to put in a proper challenge has begun to look like the toast that stayed too long under the grill. Certainly the strange heat coming off the Belgrade toaster seems to have frazzled Liverpool’s already fragile form a little more.
Suddenly, doubts are surfacing.
Still just two points off the top, but with a goal difference dragging an eye-popping 13 adrift of City, who have banged in six against each of their last two opponents, Liverpool’s difficult run of fixtures is beginning to pan out how it was feared it might in the previous edition of Dispatches.
The two four-goal salvos against Cardiff and Red Star have been put in the shadow somewhat by a draw at Arsenal and the lethargic cave-in at the Marakana. Suddenly, a crisis of confidence and team selection is rearing its ugly head. How swiftly fortunes change. A home fixture against the leakiest defence in the Premier League (Fulham) may serve as the pick-me-up needed, especially as that troublesome fixture list then resumes a distinctly tough look, with away trips to Watford, an absolute crunch game in Paris and the Merseyside Derby. There is no respite coming, so Liverpool’s fixture with Fulham now looks absolutely essential in shoring up what currently seems to be fading form and confidence.
City, meanwhile, plough on without ever having looked like they are properly into top gear yet. How this plays on Liverpool’s minds is critical. All this without Kevin de Bruyne. All this with the swishing vortex of press speculation there to distract the smooth process of winning first eleven fixtures. All this without really playing a single game this season where the symmetry and cutting edge has properly surpassed any of last season’s top moments.
Liverpool’s problems have transferred themselves from last season’s backward focus through to areas of the team that were in 2017-18 its strongest points. The defence now operates as a compact success story around the burgeoning talent of Virgil van Dijk. The goalkeeping doubts are over, but now that high pressure midfield that worked its socks off to such great effect last season, suddenly looks ponderous and ill at ease. New boys Fabinho and Naby Keita have not yet settled or do not get picked. A strange urge to persevere with Sturridge and Lallana looks like a disaster waiting to happen. Henderson’s feverish energy seems dulled.
Even more worrying was the fact that master motivator Herr Klopp talked of “lost mojo” after the Belgrade no-show. Now backed by heavy spending, Liverpool’s lively spirit and high-energy game was exactly what has helped make them the challengers they are considered to be this season. The widely-accepted influence of the Kop in previous seasons of success was suddenly replicated in foreign fields and used against Liverpool, as the Red Star fans kicked up a decent cacophony to wilt Liverpool’s concentration. 80% possession took the visitors nowhere in the second half. Had the blistering draw at the Emirates siphoned some of that famous energy away into the dark Belgrade night?
"It was a good football atmosphere. I don't think it would have been impossible to perform to be honest. It was not that we had to be afraid or whatever. It was a football atmosphere. Whatever they sang, we don't understand. It was only loud…" - Jurgen Klopp
If City’s week of goals was tinged with anxiety about the increasingly florid tails from Der Spiegel, they did not show any hint of being adversely affected. In fact, the crowd’s exemplary reaction at the Etihad on Wednesday night, where a full house noisily created its own "football atmosphere", shows all of this moral shuffling and slicing may have just the effect Liverpool were dreading.
The moral whirlpool kicked up by the German magazine’s “explosive revelations” is probably best put into perspective by Larry Ryan’s superbly balanced piece in the Irish Examiner.
Meanwhile, City go into the Manchester derby in a state of controlled indignation. The crowd is right behind them. Everything is coming together. The them-against-us doctrine so beloved of Jose Mourinho in the good old days may just have been created in its purest form by outside forces instead.
That can only spell trouble for the chasing pack.
– Simon Curtis
31st October 2018 – When school children are taught the history of the Premier League - and lets face it, that’s definitely going to happen - it’s possible the past week will feature heavily in the dozen or so classes dedicated to modern Manchester City.
Bloody hell, it’s been a busy one. Twelve goals scored in two games, one of which resulted from a penalty-that-should-never-have-been and in turn led to further accusations of anti-City bias within the mainstream media. And then, of course, there has been the cloud that’s hung over everything: Financial Fair Play.
The revelations, published across a number of days by Der Spiegel, have created a rabbit hole that I’m keen not to delve too far down. Something I do want to touch on, however, is the focus Der Spiegel’s reporting has brought on to the conflict that exists between “elite” and “new money” clubs, with the former seen by some as the enemy. Greedy protectionists in it for themselves.
Fair enough, but what hasn’t been, and never is, addressed is how a club becomes “elite” in the first place? And once it has reached that status, does it not deserve some level of protection?
Take Liverpool. How did we become “elite”? Without boring your tits off too much, it started when Bill Shankly became manager in 1959 and through his genius and hard work, led the club from Second Division dossers to First Division champions. He then left and was replaced by Bob Paisley, who it turned out was also a genius. Then came Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, both brilliant in their own right, with the latter also a brilliant player who played alongside a series of brilliant players during his time at Anfield.
Since the 1990s, things have been less brilliant for Liverpool but we’ve still done pretty well (two major European trophies, three FA Cups, four league cups ... loads of belting songs) and ultimately all of this came about through bottom-up growth and sustained development. In other words, elitism earned.
Supporters of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus, to name just three other members of the “elite”, could make similar arguments, and that’s where the resentment comes in. We’re getting on with trying to win things, which is hard enough as it is, and then come along the “new-money” clubs - Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain ... Manchester City - to make things even harder. It doesn’t feel right, a shortcut taken to success, and to top it off, us “elite” supporters then hear two of those clubs have been in the kitchen cooking the books. Annoyed? Just a tad.
I’m very close to the edge of the rabbit hole now so will take a step back and say no more about FFP. Instead I’ll move onto Raheem Sterling’s penalty incident against Shakhtar Donetsk. In summary: I don’t really care.
It’s interesting, and no doubt a talking point, but we all saw what happened and ultimately it came down to a mistake by the referee. To accuse City, and Sterling in particular, of foul play is a smokescreen.
No other club or player would have held their hands up had they found themselves in the same situation. More so, few supporters would want their own club or player to do so either. Make no mistake, if Liverpool are drawing 0-0 with Fulham on Sunday and Sadio Mane falls over his feet in the box and is awarded a penalty, I want the penalty. Sportsmanship? There are three points on offer and the ref’s delivered them to us on a silver plate. Only a fool would turn down such generosity.
Some of the headlines that followed the win over Shakhtar have caused outrage among
In normal circumstances, I’d want City to win. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Instead, Liverpool are in an actual fight for the title with the reigning champions while the real enemy - them in red and black - are coughing and spluttering a little way back.
So yes, I’ll be cheering on United. Yet in the back of my mind there sits the thought that, actually, it may be better if City win. Partly for the look on Jose Mourinho’s face that would follow and partly because, maybe, Liverpool haven’t got what it takes to be champions, after all.
We’re playing well but not as consistently well as City, as seen starkly during the 2-0 defeat to Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday. It was a really poor display by Liverpool and another against Fulham could make this season less about being champions and more about finishing in the top four. In that case, United would indeed be the real danger, coming over the hill and pulling hard on our tails.
Much to play for, then, at the top of the Premier League, and for the team at the very top, another big moment after all the others that have come and gone in recent days.
– Sachin Nakrani
Saturday, November 10, 2018
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
Thursday, October 25, 2018
Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis
24th October 2018 – Liverpool’s turgid weekend win at Huddersfield seemed to contain very little of that magic Klopp sparkle, carrying instead a healthy portion of good fortune. A turning point? Or a team hanging on for dear life until things - and crucial players’ form – decide to take a turn for the better?
There were no lucky moments for the game to pivot on, as happened at the Etihad with strange refereeing and an even stranger second goal, but you got the distinct feeling that this was a Liverpool performance that would have warranted nul points had they been playing anybody but dire second season syndrome Huddersfield Town.
With Firmino and Mane missing, things looked rubbery and warped. Adam Lallana pranced and postured and Daniel Sturridge did broadly the same. Little Salah, carrying the weight of the world now he is the planet's darling, looked leaden once again. Cement in his boots, apart from one crucial frisky finish that reminded us all that he can still do it.
But doing it, on a regular basis, he is not and, boy does that make a difference to how forbidding Liverpool look.
The drubbing of Red Star Belgrade may well be the catalyst the Kop has been waiting for. More Salah goals (50 from 65 now), a lightening of step and things beginning to look good again. Luck, as Liverpool know, plays its part in these crucial, pivotal moments that can change a season for the better or worse, or kick-start a new direction. On this occasion, it was the luck of playing Huddersfield and Red Star, two of the worst participants in the respective competitions that Liverpool faced them in.
The mind goes back to Mark Robbins for Manchester United at Forest and Adrian Heath for Everton at Oxford United, two cup games that saw ultimately iconic managers possibly one more defeat away from calamity. Messrs Ferguson and Kendall survived to become serial winners with their respective clubs, but it was close and they were lucky.
Luck played its part for the great Liverpool sides too. When you’re properly good, things tend to just drift your way. Subliminal bubbles build up in officials’ brains, causing delirium and the taking of decisions that they would not normally entertain.
Amongst Liverpool supporters of that generation, the name probably deserves a mere flicker of attention. For any City fans there that night, however, it is a name that resonates as forcefully and clearly as if someone had just hit you over the head with a bin lid.
ALF GREY. For it is he.
For Mr Grey was the upright, quasi-military-looking fellow, who managed single-handedly to whistle City out of a hard-fought, mud and feathers League Cup semi final with Liverpool.
This was the well-oiled Liverpool, the goal-scoring machine of the 70s that steamrollered all-comers. Even with proper referees you knew you were in for a torrid time. City, busy beginning a bad run against Liverpool which – quite incredibly -endures to this day, were on the up with new manager John Bond, who had been asked to wipe the memories of the failed Malcolm Allison experiment.
City, fast out of the traps, were one-up inside three minutes, or at least that is what the heaving Kippax believed. Grey had other ideas, though, and did very much what Jonathan Moss did at the Etihad last weekend: he bottled the big decision in favour of the big club. Inventing a push from Kevin Reeves which nobody had seen, the man in black ruled out the goal and asked Ray Clemence if he’d like to take a free kick instead.
Oddly, this moment not only stained a chunk of my childhood, it has remained as a shadow across my life ever since. That City still cannot shake the Liverpool hoodoo only serves to make the whole shebang more personal, more evil-smelling and more painful.
Of course, City didn't make it to Wembley. That disallowed goal and a late winner for the visitors, stemming from a free kick that only Alf Grey understood the geometry of, sank the Blues and the lung-busting draw at Anfield in the second leg did not suffice.
But ask any Liverpool fan and they will remember instances like that at every ground they visited. Referees, administrators, they are all agog in the face of winners. Which special alignment of the planets allowed United to go 300 years at Old Trafford without conceding a penalty? Liverpool were similarly well treated in the 70s and 80s. They earned it, you scream. These things even themselves out, you stammer. Fruit and nuts, I reply. It is the simple dazzling light of the star manager, the whiff of victory from David Silva’s armpits that send them off kilter. After years of bitter defeat and gales of laughter as Mark Clattenburg and Chris Foy dealt swiftly with our fragile hopes, things are on the move for City now. Liverpool too, with Klopp’s charming teeth and that persuasive breeze of sound off the Kop, can still rely on soft refereeing skills to see them right when the going gets tough.
It is folklore and hokus pokus of this kind that keep us all chattering, of course. Some souls even think songs can win them matches. In the long run, however, the Premier League will be won by the best team, not the luckiest one.
– Simon Curtis
24th October 2018 – There are several ways in which a club knows it has hit the big time. Great players, great goals, great wins ... great trophies. Another is absolutely and utterly getting away with it against a smaller side.
Welcome to the big time, Manchester City.
Bloody hell, that was some display by Jonathan Moss at the Eithad Stadium on Saturday, failing to act on two shocking challenges on Burnley players, from Vincent Kompany and Leroy Sane, as well as allowing City a goal when it should have been ruled out given David Silva was practically in a different part of Manchester as he delivered the cross from which Bernardo Silva made it 2-0.
It would be foolish to suggest Moss’s non-calls affected the overall outcome - City were yet again excellent and would have triumphed one way or another. But the referee’s ineptitude no doubt contributed to the size of the scoreline, as well as posing a broader question - would City have got those decisions in a different era, specifically the one before all the money and trophies?
It’s possible. After all, referees regularly deliver shocking decisions in all manner of games and circumstances, but there was something distinctly distinct about Moss’s display - that of a man whose mind had been swayed by where he was and who his hosts where.
It happens to the best of us. Literally. As a Liverpool fan there have been numerous games over the years when I’ve looked on with silent surprise and relief as a referee has totally allowed us to get away with one. A penalty not given when one of our defenders has clearly tripped one of the opposition attackers in the box, a red card not shown when one of our midfielders has taken out one of theirs, an offside not called when one of our forwards is, well, offside. You get away with a lot more when you have a lot more kudos, and especially at home.
Just look at Arsenal’s 3-1 win against Leicester at the Emirates - fully deserved but how did Chris Kavanagh, the referee, not see Rob Holding’s handball in the first half? He was in the perfect position. The only explanation is that in the critical half-a-second he had to make a decision, Kavanagh remembered where he was, mulled over the grief he’d get for pointing to the spot and decided to pretend he hadn’t seen an obvious offence. In short, he bottled it.
So City are not the first, and will certainly not be the last, big team to find a friend in the man who is supposed to be officiating one of their games with complete neutrality and professionalism. And, for sure, any team that wins the title requires a bit of luck along the way, no matter how brilliant they are. Think back to the Manchester United sides that won title after title in the 1990s - they were supreme but it was definitely a bit odd how the opposition never got a penalty at Old Trafford.
So City remain top and it only helps their cause that Kevin de Bruyne is back from injury. But Liverpool are right on their tails despite not playing particularly well and having the harder run of games, and the next set of fixtures could lead to a notable shift given Jurgen Klopp’s men are at home to Cardiff while those belonging to Pep Guardiola travel to Tottenham for a Monday night showdown at Wembley.
A tough assignment for City, who were immaculate in victory over Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek but may require a bit of luck to succeed against Spurs. As Burnley can testify, it wouldn’t be the first time.
– Sachin Nakrani
Thursday, October 18, 2018
Even in terrible times, the sight of Burnley heaving into view was always an invigorating moment.
The mind turns to goals, barrowloads of goals, banged in from all directions in all conditions, mainly - it has to be said - by Shaun Goater. This is a fixture, when all is said and done, that has been kind to City for many a long decade.
But, there is also something else that will not go away, despite the merrily flailing limbs of Paolo Wanchope and the shuddering posts and bars. In a roundabout way, it also features a bar too, although this one wasn't quivering after a Carlos Tevez thunderbolt
Despite Shaun Goater's annual party-piece, the avalanche of goals year after year, an act of weapons grade shenanigans by a Burnley player still comes to mind. Step forward - for it is near-on impossible to shake off the memory, Mr Kevin McDonald esquire.
McDonald's name will forever be associated with the 2010 Turf Moor fixture that saw City rush out of the traps and into a scarcely credible 5-0 half time lead. It had been 3-0 after just seven minutes, with many away fans still taking their seats. If Burnley had always been reasonably pliable opponents, on this occasion they were constructed from guacamole.
With the home side trying their best to stay on their feet in the face of Roberto Mancini's increasingly rampant team and weather conditions that could fairly be termed inclement making the pitch look more and more like nearby Lake Windermere, it soon became clear that a possible abandonment was the home team's only real hope of salvation.
Burnley were not helped by the presence in goal of Brian Jensen, a Dane built like an outside lavatory, who, as the BBC kindly put it that evening, "seemed to be betrayed by poor handling". This was a phrase, often put in slightly less eloquent terms, that attached itself to the burly Jensen like chip paper to a brand new pair of Adidas Gazelles.
|McDonald contemplates life in a northern town|
McDonald, however, had his own abandonment already in mind and, by half time, as his bedraggled team mates made it to the shelter of the steaming Turf Moor dressing room for a quiet cup of tea and a vol-au-vent with their famously laid-back manager Brian Laws, he was already harbouring a plan of his own to blunt the drama.Laws, famous for fostering all-or-nothing team spirit at Grimsby, where he had once laid more than jazz hands on the individualistic Ivano Bonneti during a frank tactical appraisal of the Italian's forward play, leaving him with a fractured cheek bone, cannot have been overly taken with Burnley's first half showing.
When he issued the magic words, "Kevin, If you don't mind too much, I'd rather not see you out on the park second half," McDonald's plan began to take shape. By the time Steven Fletcher bagged Burnley's consolation goal on 71 minutes to make it 6-1, McDonald had joined his father in the near-by 110 Club and was watching the live action via its big screen, while delving heartily into a variety of salted snacks.
The intake of beer and peanuts helped crystalize some other basic thought processes, however, and McDonald's public repentance was soon being splashed across the morning's press in erudite and respectful tones:
"I now realise it was naive, disrespectful and totally wrong of me to leave the ground at half-time on Saturday, It was a gross misjudgement and instead I should have remained at Turf Moor to support my club and team-mates.
The under-21 international, bought at some expense from Dundee, was soon on his way, with manager Laws not far beyond him. Burnley finished the season relegated. Laws next post was at Shamrock Rovers, where you presume beer was not exactly frowned upon."I acknowledge that I also showed a serious lack of respect to all the fans who were at the ground and who pay good money to watch their team play. I would like to apologise to the players, management and supporters and I have accepted my punishment. In closing, I would like to reassure all supporters that I am fully committed to helping the team as we fight to stay in the Premier League."
McDonald resurrected his career without the need for in-match pub visits at Wolves and now resides at Fulham, where he is an occasional starter in Slavisa Jokanovic's flamboyant side.
Saturday, 3 April 2010 -- Premier League
Thursday, October 11, 2018
Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis
Under the Volcano
10th October 2018 – Back in March, following Chelsea’s Champions League defeat to Barcelona, I put out a tweet regarding Lionel Messi following yet another excellent display by the Argentinian at Camp Nou.
“I feel sorry for Lionel Messi because he hasn’t had the privilege of watching Lionel Messi play football. All he can do is take our word for it.”
The tweet was meant as a joke. All night people had been tweeting out the type of stuff you only see when Messi is playing well - ‘we’re not worthy’, ‘he must be from another planet’, ‘greatness in front of our eyes’, that sort of thing and this was my subtle, sarcastic dig at all of the online salivating.
But, as is often the case with my tweets, people didn’t get the sentiment behind it and thought I was being deadly serious. There were over 3,000 retweets, 6,000 likes and 50 responses, practically all of which were mushy in their praise of Messi.
I initially found the response baffling and nauseating in equal measure, but the more they came in the more my heart melted. Gradually this misunderstanding felt rather lovely - a collective, online appreciation of a player who, let’s face it, deserves all the adulation that comes his way.
I thought of that tweet, and the response to it, while stood on the Kop on Sunday watching David Silva play for Manchester City. He’s no Messi but, my God, he’s a wonderful footballer. One of those footballers that makes you acutely aware of how not-very-good you are at football. The way he manoeuvres into space, collects and cares for the ball like a mother collects and cares for her newborn child, and, time and again, plays the right pass at the right time.
I watched Silva do all of this on the green grass of Anfield and thought to myself, “I feel sorry for David Silva because he hasn’t had the privilege of watching David Silva play football. All he can do is take our word for it.”
The mad, bewildering, scary thing is that he wasn’t even the best City player on the pitch. Heck, he wasn’t even the best Silva on the pitch. Bernardo Silva was absolutely tremendous in centre midfield alongside Fernandinho, showing a level of aggression and robustness that I wasn’t aware he possessed. On the ball he then displayed his renowned technical class; a drop of the shoulder here, a spurt into space there; a pass to the left, a pass to the right, a few forward and the occasional one back. Always in control, always a danger.
City were very good on Sunday. Not their sparkling best but defensively excellent and, in possession, showing the type of refinement and purpose that left me convinced they were going to nick it. And of course they nearly did after Leroy Sane collected a pass from - guess who – David Silva, drove into the box and tempted the otherwise excellent Virgil Van Dijk into a clumsy lunge. Penalty with five minutes remaining, the perfect snatch and grab, and then Riyad Mahrez stepped forward and ballooned the ball so high that it still hasn’t dropped to earth.
Leaving the ground I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief. I would’ve taken a point before kick-off and even more so after Mahrez’s miss. But there was also concern, partly because of how poorly Liverpool’s front three played yet again and partly because of the savvy Pep Guardiola had displayed from a tactical point of view.
Having conceded seven goals in the two games City played at Anfield last season, he was clearly determined to keep it much tighter this time around. It was startling how reserved City were from a structural as well as intent point of view, not really coming forward until around the 15-minute mark. Even then it was tentative and never fully did the visitors go for Liverpool’s throat.
In Tuesday’s Guardian, Jonathan Wilson wrote a piece dissecting City’s display and made the point that for all the talk of Guardiola being a ideologue, he has history when it comes to pragmatism. At Bayern Munich, Wilson wrote, a 4-1 defeat at Wolfsburg led to Guardiola questioning his tactics and whether or not he had got “carried away with his experiments in using full-backs in possession in effect as old-fashioned wing-halves that he had forgotten the basics?” Determined to avoid such a drubbing again, the Catalan wrote what he came to refer to as “the bible”.
Wilson explains what the bible was but for the sake of expediency, I’ll summarise: “Defend better”.
And that’s what City did at Anfield. It earned them a point in a game which last season they got none and if Guardiola is able to mesh the thrilling brand that took City to the title with the type of display that earns them a point in games they’d otherwise lose then God help us all.
Saying that, it could transpire that this was actually two points dropped (which it sort of was anyway given Mahrez’s miss) and that rather than keeping Liverpool at bay, City have allowed them to keep hold of their coattails at a time when their football is stodgy and disconnected. Liverpool will improve and if that comes at a time when City go through a rough patch then we could see a quick turnaround at the top of the table and, ultimately, a shift in the team able to call themselves champions of England.
That team may not necessarily be Liverpool. After all, Chelsea are level on points with the ‘big two’ and look the real deal under the Italian geezer that is Maurizio Sarri, while Arsenal are also coming up on the rails. Tottenham, meanwhile, are having a properly weird season - doom and gloom all over the place yet Mauricio Pochettino’s men sit just two points off the summit having recorded their joint best start to a Premier League season after eight games.
Saying all that, I still believe it will be City and Liverpool who are tussling for the title come late spring. Who wins it remains hard to say - City rightly remain favourites, especially so after their show of canniness on Merseyside. But that display also hinted at a level of trepidation on the part of the champions and a repeat, at Stamford Bridge, the Emirates, Wembley or, dare I say it, Old Trafford, could lead to not only two points being given up but three.
Liverpool’s task is to then pounce and take full advantage, a task they’re up for and, all going well, capable of.
– Sachin Nakrani
10th October 2018 – When Malcolm Lowry wrote “I have resisted temptation for two and a half minutes at least: my redemption is sure” in Under the Volcano, his novel’s main character was almost certainly not thinking about Association.Football. Pep Guardiola, though, will appreciate the thought.
While Lowry’s consul was staving off the urge to get drunk to forget about the mess he had made of his life, the Catalan had more pressing practicalities at Anfield, stemming the expected red tide with his own version of resisted temptation. .
So, Pep had located the button marked “pragmatism” and given it a damn good prod.
That it should be pressed with such enthusiasm at Anfield was no coincidence of course. City’s execrable record there is legendary and will not be repeated in any detail here. Even recent visits have ended in tears and tantrums, despite home games yielding more positive results over the last decade.
Last season was a case in point. Four shipped in a wildly tipping league encounter and three more in a disastrous Champions League collapse. The five banged in at the Etihad in September of 2017 had at the time been a record high against Liverpool since 1937, but was somewhat buried by subsequent developments.
Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp should feel honoured that the free-wheeling man of such vivacious attacking intent decided this to be the occasion for caution, practical shape and tightly coordinated defensive blocks. Laporte and Stones were as tight as could be, Walker and Mendy mostly tucked in narrow and Bernardo Silva, that effervescent little tinker, anchored to Fernandinho’s deep midfield patch. It was all very nouveau pauvre.
Guardiola’s gung-ho mishaps had been questioned at this very place last season. Here was proof if proof was needed of further progress by a coach, who never stops learning, never stops listening.
All this was well and good and eventually worked a treat, but it had been aided and abetted by Liverpool’s queer slump in form. The very part of the side that drove everyone to distraction last season does not appear to be functioning at all well all of a sudden. Mohammed Salah, like the man who lost his sandals in the desert, continues to tip toe around hopefully but appears to have badly singed his toes.
Firminho too looked out of sorts, leaving the feisty Mané to run the City defence and get himself tangled with Fernandinho, while carrying the flag for the home side.
To complete the contrariness, Liverpool’s dynamic midfield - led by the excellent Henderson - did what was needed to take part in this tactical battle but little more. Where City had been badly overrun last season, here they produced numbers and shapes to thwart the home flow. At the back, where Liverpool had often fallen down a year back, all was serene, as City’s occasional probing brought few worries to the impressive Van Dijk and his cohorts.
Liverpool will be happy they have removed that tricky string of fixtures from their to-do list. Huddersfield, Cardiff, Fulham and Watford come next, with the only demanding trip the one that takes them to the Emirates to the media’s newly anointed “revolution club”. How swiftly things move these days. European adventures against a fast-wilting Red Star and a goal hungry PSG will fill in the spaces for the coming month or so, but Liverpool will be hopeful that they can use these fixtures to regain some of the verve they started the campaign with.
While a point has kept them as close to City as is possible (“joint top” in certain people’s minds), it also allowed the gale force wind that is Arsenal and the thoroughbreds Chelsea and Tottenham to edge closer. A two point stretch from top to fifth can only be good for the Premier League. City’s pomp and circumstance last season was an eye-catching spectacle, but a repeat of the gap which divided first and second would not be good for the competitive edge we all crave from the sport.
Liverpool have long been held as the torch bearers for the challenge to City. At the weekend they became aware that City’s hierarchy concur with that forecast. In shuttling through the game with their core beliefs under such tight control, City not only resisted the temptation to go gung-ho, but threw down a challenge to Liverpool that on this occasion they were not up to accepting. All pointers continue to suggest a close-fought battle this season. As Lowry’s consul might have said, “I’ll drink to that.”
– Simon Curtis
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