Monday, February 18, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 16


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.

An uncharacteristic 4-1 to Liverpool in 2009
Both the performance and the result felt significant because it silenced the many doubters, or to be more precise, those people trying desperately to pretend Liverpool are ‘bottling’ it. Those individuals know they’re not really, don’t they? But whatever makes them feel better. And what about City the following day? I guess it’s time for me to show how much I ‘hate’ them, further igniting this bitter ‘rivalry’ taking place currently.

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's scorers v Schalke in 2008, Benjani and Ireland celebrate one of the two goals in Gelsenkirchen

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




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