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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
21st March 2019 – An international break is normally the footballing equivalent of having to sit through Mrs Brown’s Boys when you’ve been treated to Alan Partridge, The Office and Peep Show for the rest of the year.
Time often moves backwards during these painfully dull periods, when you actually have to consider doing other things with your life. But not this time, though. Sure, there will be moments when the days are dragging and you force yourself to watch England play whichever instantly forgettable team they are up against, but this feels like some welcome respite.
This season has been exhausting. As a Liverpool fan, the business end of a campaign has too often been meaningless during my lifetime, with low-key matches on offer and the only enjoyment that of being able to watch other sets of fans suffering. Under Jurgen Klopp that has instantly changed, however, with every season under his tenure leading to huge occasions in March, April and May.
First there was the Europa League run, then there was a vital top-four finish, last season saw Champions League glory so nearly secured and this time around it is a Premier League title challenge of epic proportions. Every match has felt huge in 2018/19, even taking a physical and mental strain out of supporters who are simply watching at the ground or on televisions across the globe. Fulham away was meant to be a nice afternoon in the west London spring sunshine, but it ended up being a harrowing experience for anyone of a Reds persuasion, with yet more bizarre weather conditions thrown in.
Klopp’s men again failed to hit top gear away from home and they were rescued by the most grown-up, mentally resolute player in the squad. James Milner will never be a fashionable footballer, but he is worth his weight in gold in the big moments. Thank God he had been introduced by the time Sadio Mane won that late penalty, because the thought of anyone else standing over the ball would have been unbearable.
Mohamed Salah, despite being harshly criticised of late - he has contributed plenty despite not scoring - would most certainly have missed. Milner stroked home the spot-kick in his own nerveless manner, of course, sealing a monumental three points and saving the blushes of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, both of whom have been imperious this season but were woeful for Ryan Babel’s equaliser. Babel really didn’t want to tap that ball in, did he?
A special word of praise for Mane while I’m here. He has been magnificent in the last month or so, scoring 11 goals in as many games and really stepping up while others have floundered a little. He is to Liverpool what Bernardo Silva is to City currently, in terms of influence. I watched some of City’s ultimately predictable win at Swansea on Saturday and Silva was the man who inspired the comeback. He is a quite wonderful footballer, but as a Liverpool supporter, he is someone I also fear because of his winning mentality and underrated bite. See also: Sergio Aguero.
They are the pair who will produce in the big moments in these next few months, as well as the increasingly talismanic Raheem Sterling. City got extremely lucky at the Liberty Stadium, but I couldn’t waste my Saturday feeling irked by that. They were playing in a competition the Reds aren’t even in, for starters, and I have a title challenge to worry about. It did make the topic of luck come to the forefront of my mind, however - something that is unquestionably going to be key in the title race.
Any team in football history to have won trophies have required fortune on their way to glory, and there is no shame in admitting it. If City win the quadruple this season, it will be one of the greatest achievements in English football history, but they have faced endless weak opponents across several competitions. It has helped hugely.
Likewise, Liverpool needed enormous luck to win the 2005 Champions League, from Luis Garcia’s contentious ‘ghost goal’ to Jerzy Dudek’s almost unfathomable save to deny Andriy Shevchenko in the final against AC Milan.
There are seven and eight league matches remaining for the Reds and the Citizens, respectively, and I have no doubt that a few moments will either go in the favour of one team or badly against them. A horrific refereeing decision is around the corner, or perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime volley by a terrible opposition player. Maybe City’s captain will slip and gift Liverpool the title. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?
Whoever ends up sealing glory on May 12th will have fully deserved it, but the eventual champions will look back on key moments that benefited them during the season. Will it be Divock Origi’s fluky stoppage winner at home to Everton? Will Vincent Kompany avoiding a sending off against Liverpool prove pivotal? Or will it be something that hasn’t even occurred yet?
Bias is natural with any football supporter, but I do legitimately feel that the Reds are due some luck in a Premier League title race, having often not had it the few times they have challenged, most notably in 2001/02, 2008/09 and 2013/14.
Then again, I am convinced they used up all of it in Istanbul, so I can’t say I’m holding out too much hope. Anyway, I’m off to fill my time during this international break - whatever I end up doing in the next few weeks, it will be nice taking a step away from the exciting, nerve-shredding few months that will take place after it.
Fulham away for City next, which is a guaranteed three points, then Tottenham at home for the Reds. Please be ‘Spursy’, Spurs.
– Henry Jackson
21st March 2019 – “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horsemen, pass by!”
The epitaph of Irish poet William Butler Yeats comes to mind as Twitter combusts with rage at the apparently undignified amount of luck coming the way of Manchester City this season.
Countless people have pointed out, between sharp intakes of oxygen, which sides City have drawn in the various cups this season. Without a hint of irony, what used to extract comments like “their name’s written on the Cup this season”, now provokes a Ladslide of cheats and frauds comments. Such is life in the choppy waters of Brexit, Fake News and social media intolerance. We live in truly enlightened times.
In drawing the likes of Rotherham and Burton Albion (in a semi final just to make Jake from Wigan froth even more) and Brighton and Swansea and Oxford and Hoffenheim, some forget that you can also draw Derby County early on in a cup competition and go no further than that. Drawing Tottenham in Europe's last eight this season does not negate the fact that City have had serial squabbles with Bayern and Barcelona in their short stay on the continent. Uli Hoeness, unlucky to be caught evading paying tax, has long pushed for a Champions League formula that reduces luck to a manageable minimum, a safeguard, a reward for being, well, Bayern Munich, but he might like to join Jake from Wigan in reflecting on luck's rich bounty. For a man fortunate enough to have survived a 1982 light aircraft crash in which his three co-travellers expired, he may like to dwell with the rest of us on just how inextricably linked we all are to the fickle finger of fate.
There is, despite today’s badly skewed playing field, a good chance of failure, even if the magic balls have placed you favourably. City fans know this better than most, having followed a club that has had more public mishaps in our domestic cup competitions than it would be polite to recall just now. You can’t go far in listing lower league clubs before one nightmare memory or another pops up enthusiastically.
To misquote Richard Dawkins, and who doesn’t these days, “we are going to Wembley and aren’t we the lucky ones”. Because, obviously, to reach Wembley twice, with the distinct prospect of a third trip if the FA Cup semi final v Brighton turns out well, is pretty lucky.
But then luck evens itself out, doesn’t it? Whoever said that one had eaten too many grapes for his tea. All winning sides appear to have more luck. It could emanate from the amount of attacking they do in relation to their opponents. Find yourself dancing coquettishly around Huddersfield’s penalty box for 85 minutes and someone at some point is going to stick an ill-considered leg out and make a plum of himself. Liverpool witnessed this very scenario last weekend, while making heavy weather of a passive aggressive Fulham side visibly preparing itself for ignominious relegation.
With Virgil van Dijk’s weak header back and Alisson Becker’s indecisive goalkeeping putting the equaliser on a plate for ex-Liverpool man Ryan Babel, the Craven Cottage fixture looked set to provide one of those eagerly awaited slip-ups that the press tell us both clubs are bound to have on the run-in. Luckily anything Alisson could construct in the way of flip-flappery, Sergio Rico at the other end could better. It can be said with some certainty that, on recruiting the Spaniard – replete with full national team honours – Fulham had not been expecting antics of this calibre. Rico flapped at Sadio Mane in the box as the striker was making his way quietly away from goal, giving away a penalty as priceless to Liverpool as it was ridiculously unnecessary for Fulham and, in extension, painful for City.
Cue James Milner to wrap up the points. The exhalations of relief in the away end could be heard on the other side of the Thames. You get the feeling, ever so slightly, that Liverpool are beginning to hang on a little. The early season fluidity has become staunched, the muscles are tense, the minds are busy turning over all the permutations that the final eight games may bring.
Throw in a couple of clashes with FC Porto and Liverpool – fans and players alike – will be sharply aware of how much there is to win - and lose - in the final weeks. Liverpool, with a game less in the league and two less in the FA Cup, a comfy-looking run-in and a tame Champions League draw, might feel a touch lucky. City too, with Spurs to entertain in the Champions League, came out of yet another cup draw smelling of roses. With FA Cup duties and the lion’s share of their league programme away from home, perhaps lucky isn’t the most apt word, however. Whatever the outlook, both sides will be counting on the hand of fate pushing them over the line. Relying solely on tired limbs and wavering minds in what still threatens to be a thrilling climax to the season might not be enough.
Dawkins stated, “The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth”. We are lucky to be here. Despite the odds, we are alive and kicking. The spotlight has passed from some onto others. Now is their time, now is our time. Gather what you have left and head for the finishing line. And may luck go with you every step of the way.
- Simon Curtis