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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.
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