Wednesday, October 31, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 10


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

In Me ‘Ead, Son



31st October 2018I’m not sure I can keep doing these midweek trips for much longer”

They are the words I never thought I’d hear come from his mouth. But there they were, on a cold Wednesday night on the M6, spilling out as we made our regular service station pit-stop with a couple of hours driving to go.

He, in case you’re wondering, is Anil, a Kop season-ticket holder for almost three decades and one of the leaders of the supporters’ club I travel to Liverpool games with. He goes week in, week out, waves one of the flags before kick-off and absolutely adores being a Red. But he’s deep into his forties now and, understandably, he’s tired.

Travelling for long distances can be hard. It’s mainly sitting around and talking - certainly so on the coach we take from north London to Anfield and back - but nevertheless that can be draining. After a while you get fed up with it, as Anil was on the way back from Liverpool’s Champions League group fixture against Red Star Belgrade last week. We’d won 4-0, played some decent football, but now it was gone midnight and, as is always the case, our long journey home had been made longer by roadworks. Truth be told, we were all fed up; Anil was merely the first one to say it out loud as we took our mid-trip break.

Why am I bringing this up? Because it’s relevant in the context of the Premier League title race, and specifically in regards to the potential fortunes and failings of Liverpool and Manchester City in the coming weeks.

Following City’s 1-0 win against Tottenham - a decent game that took place on a less-than-decent pitch - Simon and I engaged in a somewhat spiky Twitter conversation. Without going into the details, I thought he was taking the piss and he insisted he wasn’t. Anyway, it led to Simon pointing out that for Liverpool, four of the next five games in all competitions are away from home while for City, four of the next five are at home.  This led to a bit more spikiness as I questioned why the need to include non-Premier League games in a conversation that was about the Premier League title race, to which he said something that got me thinking. “Because away trips to the continent have an influence.

He’s right - they do. It’s the travelling, you see. It takes it out of you. Leaves you feeling fed up.

Now, of course, when it comes to the effect travelling has on the brain and the body, there’s a big difference between a bunch of out-of-shape and overly-stressed blokes going up and down the motorway in a glorified mini-bus and a group of highly-trained and perfectly-prepared athletes flying first-class, but travelling is travelling. Some form of negative impact is inevitable. 

Ask Virgil van Dijk, James Milner or Sadio Mane if they’d rather play a series of games in early winter home or away and I’m sure they’d go for the former, especially given the furthest their main rivals for the title have to travel between now and the 24th November is east London. No early check-ins for Pep’s boys. No sitting on a plane, which even at its most comfortable can be a bit of an annoyance, or training and resting in completely unfamiliar surroundings. All those awkward and influential variables have been taken out of the reckoning for City as they look ahead to games against Fulham in the Carabao Cup, Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League and Southampton, Manchester United and West Ham in the league. 

Things can always be worse.

Liverpool, meanwhile, go to in-form Arsenal at the weekend before travelling to Belgrade for the return game against Red Star. There then follows a home game against Fulham before away fixtures against Watford and Paris Saint-Germain. Belgrade aside, none of those trips are particularly taxing but they are trips nonetheless, quite literally taking Liverpool out of their comfort zone for the best part of four weeks. 

I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit of a concern given how relentless City have been so far this season. At times they’ve been incredible while on other occasions, such as at Wembley on Monday, they’ve done just enough, but it all adds up to an ominous opening to proceedings by the champions. Now comes a slog of a stretch and pitted alongside Liverpool, they have the inside lane and the wind behind their backs.

That’s what made City’s most recent victory a kick in the nuts for Reds. Having seen Liverpool beat Cardiff on Saturday, we tuned in to the game against Spurs hoping - expecting, even - that Mauricio Pochettino’s men would do us a favour by at least securing a draw. But instead they were beaten having conceded an early Riyad Mahrez goal and then failing to take one of the clear-cut chances that came their way on a cold evening in north London. City, in turn, marched back to the top of the table. 

It was a less-than-sparkling performance by the men in purple but neither were they lucky to win. Mahrez’s goal was a peach while the two Silvas - David and Bernardo - were yet again excellent. Oh and Kevin de Bruyne came off the bench and delivered some lovely passes. Great. 

It was soon after the final whistle that Simon and I got into it on Twitter, and one thing he wrote that I most certainly do not agree with is the sentiment that City’s win will “deflate Liverpool completely.” No chance. The players are doing incredibly well despite not delivering consistently good displays while us fans - tricky motorway journeys aside - are absolutely loving what we’re watching right now. A proper team with proper players and a proper manager. Sorry Simon, but you don’t deflate that with a 1-0 win on an NFL college field.

One other thing - the fourth of City’s four straight home games in November is the Manchester derby. United are a bit of a mess right now but they’ll be well and truly up for that one, and if last season’s title party-crashing result at the Eithad is anything to go by, a win for Jose Mourinho’s men in red simply cannot be ruled out, whatever the circumstances.

For City, snuggled up under a blanket in front of a roaring home fire, it could prove the most awkward and influential variable of all. 

Sachin Nakrani



31st October 2018    There must have been a Koppite or two watching City’s smooth progress through Touchdown Territory on Monday and hoping for a loose divot or a parched bit of NFL trampled turf to trip City’s aristocrats up. Instead the ludicrously poor pitch came to City’s partial rescue, flicking a ball that Eric Lamela was about to plant in the net for a Tottenham equaliser playfully onto the Argentinean’s shins. The result, a ball over the bar instead of under it, will have produced more than just the isolated groan from those of a Liverpool persuasion.

Liverpool – fans and players alike – will have been looking to Spurs to upset the smooth progress of the league leaders. They will have been thinking that here was a venue, a team, a manager and now a wonderfully dilapidated pitch that could cause some serious bother.

That it did not and City sailed serenely back to the top of the league must have an effect.

My co-writer begged to differ after the game, but I put that down to the adverse effects of Lemsip. In the cold light of Tuesday morning, there was nowhere for Liverpool followers to gain succour. The highly publicised best-ever Premier League start continues to yield "only" second place. The dailies joined in on this theme and, if they dare to read the growing statistical evidence, Liverpool supporters will see clear evidence City are improving on last seasons record-breaking totals too.

But, Liverpudlians are a stout lot. The players are strong and positive. The fight goes on. It’s a marathon not a tea dance etc etc, but somewhere inside these little occurances start to eat away at your self-belief and the first step in the war of minds was taken on Monday night, when all the ingredients were in place and still the soup didn’t boil over.

City now embark on a potentially pivotal four-game home run, while Liverpool set sail for Paris, Belgrade and Hertfordshire. You can argue that it makes little difference, but I would disagree. It makes a difference alright and it is the little differences that will separate the great teams come the end of the season. Nobody expects any of the continent’s big hitters to be weakened by doubt at this stage of the season; nobody expects them to be frozen with fear or paralysed by turns of events so seemingly small and insignificant.

And yet the nagging thoughts persist.

What are you supposed to do? Ignore it? Turn it into a positive? The great philosophers, the coaching gurus would always have a bon mot to make everyone feel ok with themselves, but for all this to have its desired effect on the brain, a kernel of truth has to be seen. You cannot keep bashing on about doing your own work and seeing every problem as a challenge if bloody City just keep on winning away, even in London (a thing incidentally in this writer’s experience, they never ever used to do). Suddenly they cannot stop.

City’s numbers are beginning to look ominous. Skysports published a graphic showing many of City’s hugely impressive stats from last season are being improved upon this. If this continues, it will need much more than positive thinking to keep Liverpool close on City’s lightly stepping heels. 


And then there’s the small issue of City not actually hitting top gear yet. That’s not even worth contemplating, is it?

A slice of Iain Dowie’s Bouncebackability might at some point be needed by Klopp's men, although the difficulty for Liverpool is there is nothing to bounce back from. They are winning more regularly than they have ever done in the Premier League era. The goals are flowing. It is impressively easy. Against Cardiff, four goals were dispatched despite a low-key performance which did not drain the players’ energy levels unduly. Neil Warnock’s assertions that his team could never win at Anfield played true. Psychology at work again, but in reverse Warnock gear.

Football twitter - and footballers’ twitter in particular - is full of anodyne fripperies about “going again” and “keeping one’s chin up”, but it is what these individuals are really thinking that we need to know. Did Herr Klopp drop finally into bed and say to his wife in the dark “Do you know, I don't think we are ever going to get past these buggers”? We will never know, although the image is a troubling one and now I’m stuck with it.

If Frau Klopp turned wearily over to face his delicately lined features and whispered, “Liebling, setbacks are actually progress in disguise,” before falling into deep and rewarding sleep, then the power of positive thought may well still be alive and well Chez Klopp. Whether everyone else can remain quite so buoyant as the winter closes in around us, only time will tell.      
  
My own frazzled mind floats off to thoughts of what that master mind-bender Bill Shankly would have said in circumstances like this. Perhaps his most poignant quote “If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing…” might be better left unsaid in the present circumstances.

Simon Curtis


Thursday, October 25, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 9


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

Being Lucky



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.

The illegal challenge
The mind drifts again, this time even further back, to the throbbing cauldron that was Maine Road on the night of 14th January 1981. Yes, when luck goes against you, you don’t readily forget, even nearly 40 years on. If you're going to bear a grudge, bear it properly. 

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

HITTING THE BAR

Manchester City versus Burnley. 

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.
"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."
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. 

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

Burnley
1-6
City
(HT 0-5)
Fletcher 71
Adebayor 4
Bellamy 5
Tevez 7
Vieira 20
Adebayor 45
Kompany 58

Raining goals








Thursday, October 11, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE #8


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 2018Back 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.

All in all, a draw was a fair result. Possession was practically equal, as was shots on goal. Both sides had various spells when they were on top and, overall, neither truly did enough to earn all three points.

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.

Game on.

  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.

"We're going with Forgive Me Jesus. No one will have thought of that"

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




Saturday, October 6, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 7

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

Rivals



6th October 2018 – By the end of the 1976-77 season, City and Liverpool were separated by a single point, with the Blues on the wrong side of the tiny gap. 

Liverpool were champions again and City had to be pleased with runners-up spot to Bob Paisley’s all-conquering side. It had been a tumultuous season and the two sides might well have ended up in each other’s finishing positions had the home game for City that Christmas not blown up in their faces with the clock ticking down towards the final whistle.

With the 50,000 crowd bellowing their appreciation, City hung onto Joe Royle's 35th minute opener, until two minutes from time, when a speculative Liverpool attack led to a misheard call from the out-rushing Joe Corrigan to his defence. Dave Watson, that reliable tower of strength at the heart of City's defence, slid a backpass towards what he presumed was safety, but Corrigan had advanced and the ball skipped past him and into the net.

Dave Watson (left) realises what he has done in 1977.

Watson's anguish at the time was compounded by the end of the season, when that single mistake meant the difference between the two sides come May.

City and Liverpool were beginning to create quite a stir. 

A year later another Maine Road full-house saw City wallop Liverpool 3-1 in a match described by the affable Paisley as "the best of British football". City were absolutely flying, but fell away to 4th as Liverpool were pipped by Nottingham Forest, the newly promoted surprise package of the season. 

Instead of a City-Liverpool rivalry beginning to take root, Liverpool began a titanic struggle with Clough's Forest over the next three years, while City fell away to Malcolm Allison-inspired mediocrity.

Worse was to come, of course, with two relegations in the 80s and plenty more moss-covered shenanigans in the 90s, by which time Liverpool had resurrected their original Mersey-Manchester rivalry from the 60s with United. More recently still, a kind of rivalry with Chelsea popped up, after several titanic Champions League battles.

Yet, nothing at all to speak of with City. The 80s mean streets gave way to indifference, even pity. A general Manchester-Merseyside discomfort gradually dropped away, in the case of City and Everton at least. Having seen Joe Corrigan bottled in a rare Anfield win in 1981, City fell off to levels of pathetic that even the Kop couldn't jeer at with any deep-felt feeling. 0-4 and 0-6 defeats at Anfield within four days under Alan Ball's judicious leadership reduced everyone to gales of laughter. City were a laughing stock. No rivalry could or would come from this mismatched clash.

Perhaps, even in their new clothes, the fact that City's Anfield record has remained resolutely execrable, means today there is still no sign of a proper rivalry, despite the fact that animosity levels are clearly on the up and - particularly this season - the clubs are on each other's radars like never before. 

As with Chelsea-Liverpool, perhaps a couple more Champions League games of the intensity seen last season and a continuation of what seems likely to be a two-pronged challenge for the domestic honours, will bring these two great clubs into sharper focus for each other. City fans can drop the Klanfield always the victims taunts and the Kop can desist from shouting about a club that has only existed since 2008, which thinks everyone's got it in for them.

Or maybe it is exactly this that is spawning new levels of fear and loathing between the two clubs. 

This kind of social media fuelled spite may be playing a part in building things up a level or two. Proper hate plays a part in all good football rivalries after all. There are no exchanges of flowers before the River-Boca games or at Ajax-Feyenoord and Porto v Benfica has plenty of over-stretched neck sinew on show. Love and cuddles a proper football atmosphere never made. The signs, therefore, are good! 

Certainly - as we have seen in the past with games on the European stage - a rivalry that endures can pop up from nowhere given the right ingredients. Forest and
League Cup final 1977-78: the start of something big
Chelsea were never going to be the most obvious of hated opponents for Liverpool but the rivalries emerged over time, thanks to those continental clashes. Little animosity existed for any geographical or historical reasons. 

City- Liverpool has much more possible mileage in it than one with an East Midlands side or one from well-heeled West London. Local bragging rights, building on an already historically tense Manchester-Liverpool rivalry can bring this duel into really sharp focus in the coming seasons. If the clashes between the two sides match the drama and smoke of last season's four games, then it will not take long, there can be little doubt about that. If Liverpool are the real deal and intend to slog it out toe to toe this season, the temperature is about to rise. 

Now all that is needed is a battle royale on Sunday and a couple more fragrant Champions League clashes - perhaps a semi final this time - and we will begin to see a new rivalry in English football that is worth its name.    Simon Curtis



6th October 2018    So here we go then, the Dispatches Derby. Liverpool versus Manchester City, a battle between the top two – and best two – teams in the country and a resumption of a simmering rivalry.

Stop. Wait. Scratch that record and go back a second. Liverpool and City – a rivalry? Really? Is it? According to who and since when?

The first thing to say is that no one person is, or can be, the arbiter of what constitutes a football rivalry. Different clubs stoke different emotions in different supporters. For instance, I properly dislike Chelsea but that’s because my life as a regular match-going Red began just as the great Rafa-Jose battles of the noughties were kicking-off. I went to practically every one, including all three Champions League semi-finals in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and when you’ve gone through something like that it’s difficult not to dislike the other lot. The chants stick in the mind, as do the smug faces, not to mention the defeats; the 2005 League Cup final …
THAT league game in 2014.

But for other Liverpool supporters, specifically older ones, Chelsea are an irrelevance. Only Manchester United and Everton matter in the rivalry stakes, with Nottingham Forest and Leeds United coming in a distant second. It’s about context and experience, contests fought.

Which brings me on to City. Rivals? Could be, but not right now. Not for me, anyway.

There’s been a few tasty games between the sides in recent years, no more so than last season. The 5-0 at the Etihad, the 4-3 at Anfield, and the two Champions League games which well and truly lived up to the hype, in terms of drama and quality. But Liverpool have also had tasty games against Arsenal, Tottenham and, heck, Crystal Palace in that time and no one in and around Anfield look at any of those clubs as ‘the enemy’.

I’m aware the situation with City is different given their status – champions as well as fellow title and Champions League contenders – not to mention the enmity that developed on the back of the bus attack, but I simply don’t feel the hate and neither do most other Reds I know.

As is the modern way, a lot of this has been driven by social media. Reds and Blues shouting about how much they hate the other side on Twitter, with most doing so in order to develop their (reaches for the vomit bucket) ‘brand’.

There’s another reason why I don’t see City as a rival and it relates to the thing that appears to rile their supporters more than anything else. The ‘M’ word. Money.

I’m old enough to remember when City were a vastly different club to the one they are now, specifically in the 1990s when, let’s face it, they were absolutely dreadful. Poor players, poor managers, poor results, no more so than during the 1995-96 season when Alan Ball’s side were relegated. That was a season when Liverpool beat City 4-0 and 6-0 in the space of three days and, in general, my memories of coming up against City back then was that it was no big deal. They were there to be beaten.

City improved in the noughties but remained a team not to be feared, and that’s how it felt it was going to remain forever. But then everything changed. Sheikh Mansour strode into town.

Modern-day Manchester City feel  like a different club entirely. It’s City 2.0. A total reboot. Out went the clanking hatchback and in came the sleek sports car hell-bent on roaring past every other vehicle on the road. And fair play, City have achieved that, winning three Premier League titles and currently playing a style of football that may be the best we’ve ever seen in this country. But please, spare me the protests whenever someone suggests all this may have happened because a wealthy Arab made it possible.

The arguments I’ve had with City fans over this. Jesus, you’d think I had accused their club of sending players to people’s homes at Christmas to piss on their kids. Howls of indignation, cries of media-driven conspiracy and, in one case, someone suggesting with a straight Twitter face that City’s success has nothing to do with the 2008 takeover.

Are you shitting me?! City’s best player on 31 August 2008 – the day before the money came rolling in – was Stephen Ireland and they had Jo up front. City’s best player on 31 August 2018 was (and is) Kevin De Bruyne and they had (and have) Sergio Aguero up front. That didn’t happen through savvy scouting and money earned through shrewd accountancy; it happened because the boys in blue won the lottery.

Yes, other clubs have been the subject of takeovers, and yes, other clubs spend lots of money (Liverpool included), but in my lifetime none have gone from nought to 50 in such a short space of time. Enjoy the success but also accept how it’s come about. The overriding factor. The golden elephant in the room.

So no, I don’t see City as a rival. It’s too soon for that and, a decade on from the big bang, I still find it difficult to fully respect the club’s rise to elite level. It’s like when you play someone at snakes and ladders and you’re leading but they then throw a six and land on the square with the massive ladder and shoot up to the end. Yes they’ve won fair and square, but you’re entitled to feel peeved about how they got there.

Onto Sunday’s match. City are going to win, I can feel it. Partly because they’re an excellent team, partly because they’re due a win at Anfield and partly because I’m properly worried about Liverpool following their loss to Napoli. I was there and it was possibly the worst I’ve seen us perform under Jurgen Klopp. Lacklustre, lethargic, disconnected, crap.

No doubt there’ll be a reaction from the boys in red, and the crowd will be up for it, but if City exploit our weaknesses in midfield and take the chances that come their way then I can’t see past an away win, especially as our front three are not up to scratch at the moment.

A defeat will be hard to take but it won’t be a disaster given Liverpool will only be three points behind City having had the tougher start to the season. It’s all good, all fine, all worth keeping in perspective. One thing it’s not, however, is a rivalry.
. Sachin Nakrani



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