Wednesday, March 13, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 17


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

Role Reversal



12th March 2019 As City hit the top of the table, finally hauling in an advantage that was as wide as ten points at one point at the turn of the year, so the wheels began to turn, slowly, slowly, grinding and creaking into action. 

A moment that was to be celebrated by club and fans alike turned into a tidal wave of bad press. Coincidence? Well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? Amid investigations for everything from FFP breaches to whether Jamie Pollock was on steroids when he biffed in that 1997 own goal, City’s arrival at the summit has been shrouded in a media circus of who, what, why and when. That all of this could have been launched in the retrospective calm of the close season does not appear to have been an item for consideration and, instead, those of a sky blue nature are left to make up their own minds about what is behind the timing and the spread of glad tidings. 

In the meantime, having seen a decent lead frittered away and, after a gale-affected derby draw with Everton, finally being overtaken at the top of the table, Liverpool must be wondering just what they have to do to win this league title. It has been an astonishing season from Jurgen Klopp’s team and the criticism now beginning to reach their ears from some quarters is hardly well-placed. They will not be expecting too many plaudits either. Second place is second place, after all, but their form has been almost perfect and they are running stride for stride with one of the Premier League’s all-time best sides. .
Hold on a minute, I'm confused

Despite the doubts cast over some of the financial machinations of a club that has risen dizzyingly fast to the levels of the old elite, on-field questions are all being answered strongly and clearly. For the second week running opponents presented themselves in a shape that suggested hibernation was the only answer. Having struggled to get past a woefully unambitious Bournemouth side, City found Watford equally unwilling to play ball. It is their prerogative, of course, but begs the question what do you do when the dam wall eventually springs a leak? 

Raheem Sterling’s first of three involved a bizarre face-off between rookie referee Paul Tierney and his linesman, before they finally came to the convoluted conclusion that Daryl Jaanmat’s block tackle on Sterling had changed the balance, but there was no doubting the fact that the home side got their just desserts in the end. Liverpool too were put through an early hoop or too by an agricultural Burnley side at Anfield, before prevailing 4-2. The damage, though, if we can call it that, was done at Goodison, where a feisty but limited Everton rolled Liverpool out of their stride to prevent them getting the three points they needed to stay out in front.

This scenario is likely to change back again after the next games, as City take on Swansea in the Cup, while Liverpool have league duties against an almost-relegated Fulham. Moving back into pole position will be a useful psychological fillip with so few games to play and the fixture list will allow that to become a five point gap if they also beat Spurs before City play again in the league. 

As City also visit Craven Cottage next in the league, a direct comparison of the teams’ behaviour and progress in the same fixture will be possible. Will Fulham prove a tricky obstacle owing to yet another new manager, or will they continue to be as wide open as a barn door as of recent weeks? You get the feeling how both City and Liverpool deal with the same fixture will tell us plenty. 

Points in the bag or games in hand? It’s an old topic that has been visited before. City's current overload of fixtures does not seem to be having an adverse effect. The League Cup sits on the shelf at the Etihad, while Schalke have just been dismissed on a convincing 10-2 aggregate in the Champions League. Swansea await in the FA Cup and Liverpool wait patiently for the signs of fatigue and stress that might give them hope. City plough on, meanwhile, towards the unthinkable, unspeakable achievement that may not be as far fetched as some thought a few months back. 

As far as the league is concerned, surely the security of points is a good thing, but the knowledge that City are the English game’s best team at hauling in advantages to win the league will not help those at Anfield sleep soundly over the coming weeks. Nevertheless they can still dream of the title and, to be able to say that at this stage of the season, is proof positive of the magnificent effort all have put in to get them so close to realising that dream.   

– Simon Curtis



12th March 2019 - I was sat at Anfield at approximately 12:15pm on Sunday feeling deeply hard done by. The whole world seemed like it was against anyone of a Liverpool persuasion.

The Reds found themselves 1-0 down to rugby-playing team in Burnley, to a joke of a goal. Alisson, clearly impeded by James Tarkowski, was incredulous about a foul not being given, and that sinking feeling came flooding back. At least two goals required to win, against a horrible side. All I heard from beside me was my dad, who hadn’t been all season until that point, mumble, “I’m a bloody curse on this team”. My look told him exactly what I thought.

We had sat in a bar the previous evening seeing luck benefit Man City greatly, with Raheem Sterling’s incorrect opener turning the game on its head. (A quick word on Sterling, before I continue this sob story. He is someone I have so much time for.
He has been magnificent this season, producing the kind of response David Beckham did after similar abuse after the 1998 World Cup. At least the criticism Beckham received was partly justified!

For me, Sterling is now Virgil van Dijk’s main rival for the two end-of-season Player of the Year awards, with Sergio Aguero in the mix as well. As he scored his third of the night against Watford, I found myself happy for him, rather than angry about another City goal going in. It pleases me to see the tide turning with regards to the way in
which he is perceived both on and off the pitch. Hats off to him.

Not for a second did I expect Watford to get anything from that game, even at half-time, but decisions like that first goal still leave you feeling infuriated. To see that happen to City and then Liverpool have such fortune go against them felt unjust, and I
sat at Anfield convincing myself I was witnessing the title race ending before my very eyes.

Craven Cottage: both Liverpool and City visit next
Then the Reds reminded me that they are not the Reds of old - spineless outfits who would never win once they went behind, and who would drop endlessly soft points at home to weaker opposition. No team has won more points from losing positions this season and Liverpool showcased their ability to battle back from adversity in style, in bizarre weather conditions.

The sign of true ‘bottlers’, right?

People can poke fun at Jurgen Klopp all they like for using the wind as an excuse recently, but when you’re in the ground witnessing it firsthand you realise the effect it has on a ball-playing team. It was on another level on Sunday, with a specific area of the pitch out towards the Kemlyn Road bordering on laughable.

One ball was rolling out for a throw-in, only to spin back behind Mohamed Salah and effectively allow him to beat a man without doing anything. Liverpool didn’t let that bother them, though, or Burnley’s scandalous early attempts to waste time, and Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane had soon turned the game on its head in an instant.

It all felt plain sailing from then on, apart from when Burnley made it 3-2 in stoppage time, then sent a cross into the windy sky almost straight after.

I almost fainted as Alisson came for it, but as he (eventually) grasped hold of the ball with both hands, it felt like the most glorious of releases. Mane did the rest with seconds remaining, as the Reds picked up what I believe to be one of their most important, and impressive, win of the season so far. Many of those watching the Premier League title race unfold appear to be waiting for Liverpool to tail off, just like Tottenham have in such emphatic fashion.

The Reds won’t, though. There is every chance they won’t win the league come May, but they will not be going away until the death. You don’t accumulate your joint-best-ever points tally after 30 matches, for a club with 18 league titles, without being a fantastic football team with bags of belief. The dynamic has switched up at the top, with Liverpool becoming the chasers and City reaching the Premier League’s summit. It should only be a momentary thing, however, as City face FA Cup commitments this weekend and
Klopp’s men head to Fulham. If you want to win the league, you have to beat the team in 19th place, and that extra incentive of returning to the top should aid the Reds further.

Yes, they will have played a game more than City by Sunday night, but it could put that extra bit of mental pressure on the champions in the coming weeks.

Incidentally, by the time City themselves go to Fulham on March 30th, Liverpool could have a five-point advantage, should they see off the Cottagers and beat Southampton at St Mary’s on the Friday night. The latter is not an easy one at all, particularly as Saints are the latest club to create a weird rivalry with the Reds, simply because they have signed a lot of their best players. In some ways I loathe Liverpool being chased, in terms of it not being good for my health, but the pressure it puts on those below you not to come a cropper means it is always the position you want to be in.

City have been fantastic since Newcastle away, not always hitting top gear but showing precisely why their tally over the last two seasons is beyond belief. I haven’t expected a single slip-up since that shock defeat at St James’ Park and they have proved
me right. Frankly, I am still relatively resigned to the fact that they will prevail in every remaining fixture, too, which while bitterly unfair, is also something I would accept and applaud.

Dealing with the pressure of being behind again can only be an added hurdle to overcome, so hopefully Liverpool can breeze past Fulham, nick a win at Southampton and then sit back and watch their rivals. It would have to be Fulham they face in the league next, wouldn’t it? Haven’t they played them eight times already this season?

-       Henry Jackson


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