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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
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….