Thursday, January 24, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 13



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

Tired Legs versus Jittery Minds. Who Gives First?



24th January 2019 Taking Back Control, as Theresa May might coyly call it, is proving a jittery business already for Liverpool. The holy quest for a first league title since 1989 is proving a time-consuming, in fact possibly all-consuming, and certainly nerve-wracking business. Liverpool fans will not need reminding that we are still in January and that there are still quite a few nail-biting days till “Christmas”. Hang on tight, it looks like being a white knuckle ride.

We have advanced another week towards the finishing line, however, and, in a country where the political freeze is now more or less complete barring a late bid by Jacob Rees Mogg to introduce a strand of Venezuelan democracy to our tottering Parliament, it’s good to see football keeps edging forward step by uncertain step.

Liverpool’s 4-3 win over a brave Crystal Palace at Anfield bore all the hallmarks of tottering steps itself, of a team trying to decide whether they are up for the long fight or not. “We’ve  come this far, but I don't like the look of this…” versus “Keep on going and just get this job done”. There are Brexit analogies as far as the eye can feasibly see.

That the win over Palace was sealed bears witness to this season's new resilience in Jurgen Klopp’s team. How it was achieved, however, asks almost as many questions as it answers.


For City the League Cup brings happy very memories
The swagger has largely disappeared from their stride, replaced by a panicy that still moves the ball around fast, but doesn’t do it half as efficiently or accurately as it was doing three short months ago. Something about Liverpool’s frantic EnergyBall game is becoming a little blurred around the edges, a little less well-defined, as they cock an ear to the heavy footfalls just behind them.

They know City have been here before. Indeed City have even been here before with Liverpool. Even worse. The pressure, if it wasn’t already pronounced enough, is now wrapping itself around Liverpool’s players like chainmail. How they react to this in the coming weeks will tell us everything. Liverpool have significantly fewer games to trouble them, having taken the exit marked "Eggs-in-One-Basket" on the motorway to glory. 

City motor on and must cope with a four-trophy hunt, while their major rivals bask in sun-drenched Dubai downtime between occasional league games. This can work both ways, of course, but generally legs spared extra action mean legs that can run that extra kilometre come the end of the season. Unless your name happens to be Bernardo Silva of course.

City meanwhile plough on towards Wembley. Whatever others might say about “not caring about the cups”, winning them breeds big match calm, allows players that self-assurance that they are confirmed winners and plays into the minds of the competition that they are still trying to do the same and in Liverpool's case with the most difficult one of all: the league title. 

Liverpool are now finding injuries beginning to take their toll too. Dejan Lovren’s absence at the back has left Virgil van Dijk marshalling an ever-more makeshift backline. First Fabinho, then Jöel Matip have been forced into action, with varying degrees of discomfort for the watching masses. Imagine for a moment an injury to the Dutchman and you can probably foresee even bigger bouts of the jitters setting in, on and off the pitch.

Van Dijk has proved a very decent acquisition, if you consider today’s transfer fees reasonable business. At £75m he hardly comes cheap and, for a defender, the high figure is even more astonishing, but there can be no denying he has made the crucial difference to Liverpool’s defensive solidity. Without him, the goals against column would look distinctly different. However, even with him, that particular number is beginning to climb. Palace knocked in three at Anfield and could reasonably expect that to have been sufficient to garner at least a point, maybe three. After all, three had won them the game at the Etihad a couple of weeks earlier. Nobody had scored more than one against Liverpool in the league this season until City's 2-1 win on 3rd January. Since then, Palace have managed three to top the two scored by Wolves in the FA Cup defeat. Add the medium-scare win at Brighton and holes are forming. 

Referees too played their part. Jon Moss, running as free and careless as a Serengeti gazelle, if neither as swiftly nor as gracefully, appeared unconvinced by Mohamed Salah’s swan dives. The diving complaint has been levelled at Raheem Sterling too and, while he is “light on his feet”, the tabloid press seem to have completely sealed his fate in the claiming of penalties, witness yet another clear infringement waved on by the utterly hopeless Andre Marriner at the John Smiths Stadium last weekend. For Marriner, all at sea would seem an apt phrase and that is probably also where he belongs, if at all possible in a coracle made exclusively from donkey hair. 

Where these whistlers from hell are employed to bring calm and order to our fevered Premier League cavorting, they deliver only entropy. 

In the meantime the Good Ships Liverpool and City chug on, one on four fronts the other on two. Tired legs versus doubtful minds. Who or what gives first?

– Simon Curtis



24th January 2019 My poor, poor heart.

Watching Liverpool edge out a dangerous Crystal Palace side was a grim experience, as the season begins to grow painfully nerve-racking. Maybe it’s because us Reds supporters want this one so much compared to if we’d won three Premier League titles already - whatever it is, every match feels enormous. The Reds showed yet more resilience to grind their way to three points - something that has increasingly come to the fore of late.

It’s not always pretty at the moment, but there is belief running through Liverpool’s veins and they keep disappointing those desperate to see them drop points. Man City, meanwhile, enjoyed another one of those victories that is barely worth watching if you are a rival fan.

That’s a huge compliment, of course, with Huddersfield’s chances of winning about as good as Danny Dyer’s hopes of one day scooping an Oscar for his role as William Shakespeare. When City get the bit between their teeth, you virtually know the result against a non-top-six before it even kick-offs. It’s that one-sided. Barring a first-half lull, when Pep Guardiola started to cut an unhappy figure, it was plain sailing at the John Smith’s Stadium.

Watching the match unfold, the thing that suddenly jolted me from my slumber was the sight of David Silva coming on in the second-half. Then Bernardo Silva. City were absolutely cruising to victory and they had done it without two genuinely world-class creative footballers on the pitch.

John Stones was also an unused substitute, as was Gabriel Jesus, who I thought might actually be a bit crap for a while, but have since changed my opinion of. This ridiculous squad depth is what still gives City the edge over Liverpool, in my opinion, as the business end of the season arrives and the pressure becomes even more intense.

Injuries are likely to play a big part in who eventually comes out on top, as is fatigue, and Guardiola’s men look more likely to handle the former better. The champions feel less likely to be damaged by losing an important individual during the run-in. Fernandinho is the one exception, as proven by City’s mediocre record when he doesn’t play, but they’re still not exactly hapless without him.

They have comfortably made do without Kevin De Bruyne for fair chunk of the campaign - a player I personally rate as the best in the league when fit and in-form - which sums it up. David Silva is a special footballer but even he isn’t indispensable, while there is a lingering feeling that Guardiola wouldn’t be heartbroken if he lost Sergio Aguero for a time, despite his incredible goal-scoring record.

Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez are all influential wide men, but the team wouldn’t fall apart if one was missing. The same applies at the back, where even the immaculate Aymeric Laporte is nowhere near as vital as Virgil van Dijk. 

Van Dijk is the perfect example of Liverpool’s comparative lack of options, even though the squad is undoubtedly the strongest it has been in years. An injury to him has the potential to derail the Reds’ entire season. Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are a million miles below the towering Dutchman’s level, while Joe Gomez is a fantastic young talent, but one who is still learning his trade. The thought of Simon Mignolet and Alberto Moreno having to come in for Alisson and Andy Robertson is a terrifying thought, even though both are not as bad as many keyboard warriors would have you believe.

Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi are not suitable back-ups in attack, should one of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane of Mo Salah be out, and neither will be at the club next season. While Liverpool’s biggest worry will be injuries, City’s will be fatigue.
I’m firmly of the opinion that Guardiola went all out to essentially win the Premier League by Christmas again, as he managed so emphatically last season. That hasn’t occurred this time around, however, and it will be interesting to see how much is left in the tank come the spring.

They are still in all four competitions, and while weaker lineups will likely be fielded in some of them, there is still the mental side of having to travel and remain switched on regularly, rather than head off to Dubai, like Liverpool have this week.

I couldn’t care less that the Reds are out of both domestic cup competitions, which is a sad indictment of what they have become in many ways. Frankly, given the obsession surrounding finally winning a league title after 29 years, I really don’t mind if Bayern Munich knock us out of the Champions League as well.

It would no doubt hurt at the time, particularly in comparison to the League Cup and FA Cup losses to Chelsea and Wolves, but there are bigger fish to fry in 2018/19. Liverpool can have no excuses about tiredness in the run-in, with players refreshed after this little mid-season break and matches not coming too thick and fast. It could end up being a straight fight between whether City’s depth or Liverpool’s superior fitness prevails, with luck set to play a part, as it always does in a title race.

Up next for Liverpool is Leicester at home - another awkward opponent like Palace - while City head to struggling Newcastle. 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.

Here we go again……

– Henry Jackson


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 12




Short Winter of Discontent Already Over?


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


16th January 2019 Liverpool never do things the easy way, which made Manchester City’s 2-1 victory over them as predictable as they come. The Reds’ penchant for drama can be both a joy and a curse as fan, but it is very much the latter when all you want is to open up a 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League.

Luck wasn’t on their side at the Etihad, whether it be Vincent Kompany fortunately avoiding a red card or John Stones producing a freakish clearance and nutmeg on the line, but that’s no excuse. Liverpool have experienced fortune of their own this season, so I am going to go against the grain and not act hard done by, like fans of both clubs seem to have been doing of late.
City deserved their win in a pulsating clash and it has predictably breathed new life into their season, following a Christmas blip as surprising as any in recent years. As if such a magnificent team were ever going to surrender in limp fashion.

This is, in my opinion, the most dominant Premier League side in history that Liverpool are up against - one which remains title favourites, due mainly to previous experience of getting over the finish line. They suddenly have momentum in abundance, no doubt helped by back-to-back annihilations of Rotherham and Burton in the FA Cup and League Cup, respectively.
Watching those two games was essentially like looking at that much-used, “Stop, stop! He’s already dead” Simpsons GIF for a full 90 minutes. I once lost 17-0 in a 45-minute seven-a-side game, so I know how those poor Rotherham and Burton lads feel. 


Title race back on
Then it was back to Premier League action, as another key weekend in the title race arrived. As someone who supports a club too rarely in the title shake-up over the last 25 years, I wonder how others cope with the pressure of it all. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long and it means so much, but Brighton away felt bigger than Istanbul. Liverpool got the job done in impressive fashion at the Amex Stadium, immediately shutting down the narrative that they are about to ‘bottle’ the title. Reminder: City were the overriding favourites to win the league in August and they are the only team for whom not winning the title will be seen as failure.

That isn’t some pathetic attempt at reverse psychology, it’s the truth.

The general consensus was that another one-horse race would take place, so Liverpool being where they are is a fantastic effort. Anyway, back to Brighton. As the country tuned in preparing to mock the Reds’ latest slip-up they showcased their credentials in gritty fashion. They were patient, slowly wearing down Brighton both physically and mentally, before Salah ‘dived’ to win, and score, the match-winning penalty. This whole debate surrounding Salah is a bit mad, isn’t it? There’s a Raheem Sterling-esque witch hunt taking place now. Salah unquestionably goes down easily at times, as do many players, Sterling included, but every single penalty he has won this season has been a foul. Liverpool’s win over the Seagulls was the type we all had to witness Man United churn out for two decades, with the job done in professional fashion, without necessarily sparking into life.

It is a result that will have irked many, which is impossible not to enjoy when it’s your club pulling off the piss-boiling win. This is a very different Reds outfit to anything I have seen in the Premier League era, with so much mental resilience in their ranks. They would have to be up against this City team, wouldn’t they?

As a brief aside, this fake rivalry that is being created by both sets of supporters doesn’t sit well with me. City are fine as a club, I don’t dislike them in the slightest. They play mesmerising football, have a likeable manager and a number of players I admire greatly. Sure, the fact that they are battling with Liverpool for glory makes me will them to lose every week and laugh at them when they do, but deep down they should be allies, both loathing United in equal measure.
One thing that I do find utterly bizarre is the empty seats, though, which is a subject that has been discussed to death in the last few days. How is the Etihad not full every week when City are playing the best football in their history? I cannot get my head around it.

After Klopp’s men did the job at Brighton, it was time to see how City would fare at home to Wolves. After 19 minutes, it was game over and the first episode of True Detective was already on my mind. Willy Boly was deservedly sent-off, despite the deafening shouts suggesting otherwise, which signalled the end of the game as a contest. A easy night at the office for City, energy preserved and focus now turning to Huddersfield away on Sunday afternoon.

While I sit worrying about Roy Hodgson coming to Anfield and getting something this weekend, simply to spite the club he once looked like getting relegated, I will also hold out an ounce of hope that the Terriers can take points off City. Will they get that new manager ‘bounce’ provided by Mark Hudson, following the exit of Klopp’s great friend David Wagner? It seems almost impossible. My flatmate’s brother went to school with Hudson and has been close friends ever since, which means I’ll be doing my best to drum up the importance of Liverpool winning the league to him in the days leading up to the game.


After all, the whole country is dying to see the Reds prevail, right?

– Henry Jackson



16th January 2019 It sometimes feels like you have reached an important junction in a season and – after Liverpool’s sumptuous unbeaten run came to a sudden and, for them, untimely conclusion against City, just such a moment appeared to have arrived.

When that was followed by a defeat in the FA Cup at Wolves, albeit with a string of raw youngsters playing, the alarm bells started to clank like an alpine cow heading rapidly down the slopes to fetch her dinner. 

Make no bones about it, Liverpool have been worthy title challengers up to this point and there is no earthly reason why that should not continue to be the case right through to the dying embers of the season in May. The slew of rather daft excuses offered up after the City and Wolves setbacks may have cast the club in a slightly comedic light in the days after the games, but they remain four points clear at the top, a gap seldom breached in the last 30 years.

Jurgen Klopp, not always the most media friendly presence when things have gone against him, blamed the boisterous wind at Molyneux while the lads and lass at The Anfield Wrap went to great lengths to explain that Pep Guardiola must have paid Liverpool the ultimate compliment by asking his groundsmen to leave the grass uncut in order to slow down Liverpool’s passing game before the Etihad encounter. That it would have also slowed down City’s similarly slick passing game did not seem to enter the thought processes and that a speeded up video presentation of the day on the club’s website featured several high profile lawnmowers traversing the Etihad pitch prior to kick-off must also have passed the good folk by.

Never mind. A good excuse is always worth airing and even poor ones serve to lighten our days a little, packed as they are with ill-tempered commuter traffic, vegan sausage rolls and anti-vegan sausage roll protestors (and that’s without even mentioning that joyous bunch who represent us all in parliament). Life comes at you fast, so it’s good to laugh when the opportunity arises, even if it’s at ourselves, which City fans had been doing for decades before everything suddenly got serious.

While Liverpool were traversing their first mini crisis of a smooth as silk season, City had taken it upon themselves to follow up the ecstatic scenes of the 2-1 league win over their title rivals with a seven goal haul in the cup v Rotherham and nine more in the League Cup semi-final first leg. Oddly, 16 goals in two games was not unprecedented, as this scribe witnessed the 10-1 win over a wretched and bamboozled Huddersfield Town in 1987, followed by a six-goal midweek thrashing of Plymouth. That all seems a hell of a long time ago, so it was kind of City to repeat the trick for those that missed out the first time. For Liverpool, however it could only be imagined what further damage seeing City walloping goals in as if they were going out of fashion might do to suddenly wobbly morale. Could they emerge intact from a tricky visit to Brighton? Would the juggernaut be on its merry way once again? Brighton, with an impressively obdurate home record, would prove a stern test for a once again full strength Liverpool side, everyone chirruped.  

Pascal Gross initiates his unorthodox challenge
So, what we saw at the weekend was – despite the lack of the now trademark flowing attacking football – pretty impressive. Liverpool, aided and abetted it has to be said by a softish performance from the aptly named Kevin Friend, showed their mettle in a rough and ready sort of way. Brighton, running more on enthusiasm than anything approaching proper talent, caused a problem or two but were limited in the extreme in their attempts on Alisson Becker’s goal, but Liverpool still had to dig deep to emerge with the points.

Klopp’s insistence that they are “not the Harlem Globetrotters” after all, will have brought a few of the more over-excited supporters at Anfield down to earth, which is exactly where everyone has to be if they want to continue to carry the good fight to City in the impressive manner of the last four months. Feet firmly planted on the floor would seem a much better look than the endless displays of roadside son et lumiere of the 2014 title run-in.

City meanwhile banged in another three against Wolves to make it 19 goals in their last three games and seem to be moving pretty effortlessly back through the gears towards their customary cruising speed of early autumn. Liverpool’s progress continues but recent events can only have served to remind them that being out in front at this stage can be a nerve-wracking experience. Can they hold that nerve? Can they move on from their tiny winter of discontent as City have emerged from theirs? Finding out the answers in the coming weeks is going to be absolutely fascinating.  – Simon Curtis


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