Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Tuesday, February 26, 2019
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
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.
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 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
Friday, February 1, 2019
Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Henry Jackson and Simon Curtis
When Words Are Not Enough
1st February 2019 – “You would expect three points apiece, but equally, it isn’t unthinkable to envisage Jamie Vardy snatching a late equaliser or Rafa Benitez doing his former club an almighty favour.”
Those were my words the last time we spoke, but deep down, I really did think there was little chance of either City or Liverpool dropping points against Newcastle and Leicester, respectively.
Then the midweek fixtures happened - an utterly bizarre few days of results, both in the Premier League and abroad. Chelsea tonked 4-0 by Bournemouth, Man United needing a late goal just to get a point at home to Burnley, Juventus beaten 3-0 by Atalanta. Even Fernando Llorente scored for Tottenham.
Then, of course, there were City and Liverpool, showing that even when you score early against lesser teams you can still make a complete Horlicks of things.
My usual ritual when watching City of late has been to sit down, wait for them to go 1-0 up and switch my attention to something else. On Tuesday evening, I couldn’t even do that. I was still making myself a cup of tea as I heard my United-supporting mate yell, “THEY’RE ALREADY AHEAD”.
But City never kicked on. They bossed the possession, as they always do, but there was a flatness to their performance that I could detect when my eye occasionally returned to the television. Salomon Rondon’s equaliser wasn’t actually a great shock because of this malaise, although Fernandinho’s error was both unbelievably rare and joyous in equal measure.
Matt Ritchie did the rest from the penalty spot, City failed to respond and I was left in shock more than anything, rather than do the stereotypical football fan thing of running around the living whooping and hollering after the final whistle. Years and years of disappointment supporting Liverpool never allow me to get too carried away, especially with them playing 24 hours later.
Of course, in true Reds fashion they produced almost a mirror image of City’s display, albeit getting one point than their rivals.
That’s something Kyle Walker seems to have foolishly forgotten, following a tweet of unrivalled stupidity.
It was a strange night at Anfield not helped by the weather, with the atmosphere strangely muted given the magnitude of the occasion. I genuinely think everyone was simply too cold to even bother singing. That seemingly applies to some Liverpool players too - maybe all of them barring Sadio Mane, quite frankly - who never got going despite the early goal.
There was always a feeling that Leicester were right in the game once the Reds failed to score a second, and Andy Robertson’s rash tackle was a costly moment that resembled an Alberto Moreno brain fart.
Harry Maguire’s goal that followed seconds later was painfully inevitable, so much so that I’d almost accepted Liverpool were going in 1-1 at the break. A forgettable second-half came and went, with Leicester arguably the better side, and Liverpool were left to rue two dropped points - the first against a team outside the top-five this season, incredibly.
So what is it that has caused this surprise blip from the country’s top two sides in the last few days?
I’m finding it tough to put my finger on it with City, who given my pessimist nature, I still half expect to win every game between now and May. There does seem to be a tiredness creeping in, though, and as I’ve said in the past, I do wonder if Pep Guardiola went all in to have title wrapped up by Christmas again. All of a sudden, certain individuals seem to have lost their spark, most noticeably David Silva, from the outside looking in. I barely noticed him against Newcastle.
Wide men Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane don’t seem as devastatingly effective and consistent and Sergio Aguero’s patchy link-up play is being masked by a constant flow of goals. For whatever reason, City just don’t look as unbeatable as they were a couple of months ago, when matches felt over before they even kicked off.
Famously, no team has retained the Premier League title since Man United in 2008/09, which highlights what a big ask it is. I fail to believe that City are suddenly not as motivated - Guardiola wouldn’t allow that – but something isn’t quite right, and hasn’t been for around a month. Their mask of invincibility has definitely gone for the time being, although I am expecting a mighty response after a post-match grilling from the manager at St James’ Park.
Liverpool, meanwhile, can’t really blame fatigue on the Leicester result, having been sunning themselves in Dubai on a training camp while others took part in League Cup and FA Cup duties. A certain rustiness could be blamed, having not played for 11 days, but that sounds a little feeble to me.
It is easy to over-analyse football at times and I believe it was merely a case of Leicester being excellent and the Reds being below-par. It happens. Yes, there have been signs of dropped points coming, with no performance truly imposing since thumping Arsenal on December 29th, but this is no reason to panic.
Nerves definitely played a part in the second-half, which is only natural when the players know how huge this achievement would be. This was no bottle job, however, just a bit of an off night like every great City, United, Chelsea and Arsenal team has experienced during the Premier League era.
Such was City’s incredible form last season, you can be kidded for thinking every champion in English football history was as relentless as they were in 2017/18. They weren’t. Home draws against weaker teams have happened all the time, so any overreaction is completely uncalled for. It just feels more fatal because of how good the current champions are.
That said, the West Ham game does now feel huge, in terms of producing a response, dominating the contest and securing three points. Under the lights of the London Stadium, with everybody watching on at home - this is one of those nights where your mettle is really tested. City will have hosted Arsenal by the time that game gets underway, in a match I fully expect them to win, given the Gunners’ defensive woes.
Should Guardiola’s men not secure victory, however, genuine question marks will start to be asked about their levels of fatigue and focus. Predictions then: both teams to win, but not without a few scares.
– Henry Jackson
1st February 2019 – Despite the distinct feeling that great swathes of the nation are now waiting for a historically sound, well-run, “properly organic” club to come forward and seize the day, it is Liverpool that have edged a further point clear this week in the title race that nobody wants to win.
City, serial winners of trophies – including a European one – before Liverpool fans knew their Emlyns from their Kemlyns, purveyors of consistently larger crowds down the years than their foes and wearers of far nicer colours, just refuse to play ball.
Watching Liverpool stutter to a frozen halt against a workmanlike but frisky Leicester City at Anfield, proved a painful experience on Wednesday. For all concerned. Had City got their “usual” easy win over Newcastle the night before, the glee at watching Liverpool’s lead drop to two measly points would have been palpable enough. Instead their wobbly draw has increased the gap to five.
That the result was greeted a bit like a defeat by Liverpool supporters has put an immediate spring back in the step in Manchester. These delightful little nuances are going to be the flavour of our lives for the next three months, you can just tell. Expected to take full advantage against a Leicester side playing like the next candidates for a spring managerial saviour, Liverpool could hardly have hoped for a better start. Claude Puel, all dark Gallic shrugs and pursed lips, looked like a man close to the door marked “fromage de tete”.
Mane’s quick strike at Anfield was beaten only for swiftness by City’s own electric kick off on Tyneside, where Aguero’s shot was nestling in the back of the net before the away fans had got their breath back from football’s longest climb. That City were eventually beaten was down to complacent, sloppy, wasteful football and an attitude blockage that had Guardiola horizontal in his seat long before the end of the game.
Chances came and went one after the other. Big players, for once, did not seize the game by the scruff of the neck and turn it back to City’s favour as they have done hundreds of times. This time the malaise crept gradually through the entire body of the team until the whole shebang was malfunctioning. Stung into meaningful reaction on countless occasions in the past, City’s stars just muddled on in the same passive-peaceful mindset (Guardiola – “we forgot to play…”) to record a crucial 4th defeat of the season, a watershed moment for would-be title winners. Those defeats again: Palace, Leicester, Newcastle and Chelsea.
At Anfield a slightly different scenario was making its mark. Despite a tricky pitch, which manager Klopp suggested obliquely had done a better job of stopping his men than Leicester themselves had managed, Leicester had as many presentable chances as the home side had had.
Aside from a possible penalty for a clumsy lunge on Naby Keita, Liverpool cannot have had many complaints. The crowd murmured softly to itself. We had expected a cauldron after City’s gift the night before, but everyone had their hands frozen to the seats and the ill wind swirling around the place was blowing people’s enthusiasm off over the grey banks of the Mersey.
Liverpool had had a good period to recharge too, drifting off to the Middle East to play head tennis and mini golf while City were dealing with an away League Cup semi final at Burton and an FA Cup tie with Burnley. All the effort their coaching staff muct have put in to fine tune the build up to this game will have left them confused by the outcome. City too, going at full pelt again, so we thought, after their December capers, have fallen flat on their faces once more.
While Liverpool inspect their own navels, they will at least have the comfort of knowing this is not the same calibre City as last season. That machine that ploughed results out of the most inhospitable situations has long gone, replaced by fallibility, a little touch of Cityitis and a whole raft of distractions.
Liverpool will take solace from this, but can hardly rest on their laurels while they too are in such stop start form.
The weekend brings fresh challenges already, with league action versus London clubs. City’s growing contingent of old boys playing under Manuel Pellegrini at West Ham will want to help out if at all possible, while Unai Emery will be keen to measure his tactical finesse against his old foe Guardiola. West Ham- Liverpool fixtures are seldom anything less than robust entertainment, while Arsenal’s recent trips to Manchester have brought all kinds of vivid sights, smells and sounds. All the time the nagging thoughts remain though: for Liverpool, it is whether they have the mettle to withstand massive mental pressure to break a historical duck and the physical strength to keep jumping through those Klopp hoops or not. For City, seemingly doing things from memory this season, the nagging doubt is whether there are enough big games to bring out the proper response from Guardiola’s players. We saw it against Liverpool and may well see it in the Champions League when they run out in Gelsenkirchen in three weeks’ time, but where City fans need to see it next is against Arsenal and Chelsea in the bread and butter of the Premier League.
City’s laxness and Liverpool’s continuing refusal to buckle means we will have no proper answers for some weeks yet as to who will prevail in a battle both are struggling to cope with at present….
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