Friday, April 19, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 20



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

And On and On It Goes



18th April 2019 It feels like an entire season has passed since we last spoke, such has been the drama on show.

Football, bloody hell.

As expected, City reaching the FA Cup final was about as obvious as my horse in the Grand National falling at the first fence. I genuinely forgot the match was even happening, which either says a lot about the competition itself these days, or just how dominant City are against the lesser teams.

If that was low-key, so much else that has happened has been unforgettable.
Twenty-four hours before City sauntered past the Seagulls I was an emotional wreck once more. Having required a fluke of an own goal to get past Tottenham the previous weekend, the trip to Southampton was proving an equally galling experience. Shane Long scoring seemed entirely predictable - he scores once every five years and it’s always against Liverpool - and a raucous St Mary’s was loving the thought of ending their opponents’ title hopes.

Then Naby Keita popped up with one of those goals you don’t know has gone in, due in part to an initial lack of celebration and iffy commentary from the increasingly poor Martin Tyler. Relief. As the minutes passed, Jurgen Klopp turned to two of his most trusted generals in Jordan Henderson and James Milner - two men who have to put up with morons calling them the ‘Brexit Midfield’, and whose absence from the starting line-up had been celebrated. Some fans don’t deserve them.

The duo turned the game on its head, particularly Henderson, and both and he Mo Salah’s goal celebrations were the best of the season (so far). The win felt huge. A routine victory over Porto followed - I’m suddenly getting used to routine wins, which has not been a part of Liverpool’s vocabulary for many years now - while City toiled at Tottenham. It still felt like Pep Guardiola’s men were favourites to progress, though.

I hadn’t seen that game pan out because it was played at the same time as Liverpool, but a lack of a City away goal surprised me, as did Ederson’s sloppy error. Is he actually THAT great? Am I just being knee-jerk?

Focus was swiftly back on the Premier League in no time, and what I would consider City’s first test in what felt like a year. I was foolish to expect another present from Roy Hodgson, however, as his Crystal Palace side insipidly lay down and allowed City to cruise through proceedings. When were they last even in third gear in a league game?
Job done for City at Selhurst Park. Photo: Mike Hammond

Luka Milivojevic’s goal back did at least test the champions’ resolve briefly, but their game management was superb late on. It was a case of “over to you, Liverpool” yet again at the final whistle. Christ almighty! Again?

This time it was Chelsea hoping to end the dream and I was terrified at the thought of Eden Hazard taking to the Anfield turf, such is his penchant for turning into Lionel Messi there. But Liverpool got the job done in a match with immense pressure on them once more, in a game they would not have won in years gone by. Henderson was again influential - what an incredible boost it has been using him higher up the pitch - and Sadio Mane and Salah did the business in front of goal.

I say in front of goal, but Salah was virtually standing inside Goodison Park when he hit that shot, the bloody one-season wonder! That result will have hurt City, I know it will. So will the Southampton game. And mentally hurting your closest rivals is essential in any title race, as I have experienced so often the other way round, from Freddie Ljungberg to Federico Macheda.

As you were, then, in the title race, to semi-quote a City-supporting hero of mine. If City have been serene in the league, Liverpool have been exactly that in the Champions League knockout stages, and their 4-1 win in Porto came despite not even playing well. It was almost embarrassingly easy, barring an early burst from the hosts. This is the best Liverpool team I have ever seen. I keep telling myself that so not to take this all for granted. Trophies or no trophies this season, they’re a joy, and they are only getting better The ease at which the Reds were progressing meant I had more than an eye on the City-Spurs game, as the most remarkable opening 20 minutes unfolded. Another Ederson mistake?

It was mind-blowing football from both sides, barring David Silva, whose form seems to have fallen off a cliff. What has happened there? Before Christmas he was being spoken of as possibly the best foreign player in Premier League history - great player, but that’s a stretch - but now City look like they would be better off without him in the side.

What occurred in those dying moments at the Etihad summed up why we love and hate football in equal measure. For Spurs fans it would have been one of the most exhilarating moments in their history, while for City it was the opposite of that Sergio Aguero goal in 2012 - a goal I celebrated wildly, incidentally

It was cruel and it was also funny. I don’t hate City in the slightest, in fact I barely even dislike them, but the tribalism that exists in the current game makes it impossible not to laugh when it happens to a team that has so much to shout about. As a pessimist, I am now deeply concerned about the impact that defeat is going to have on the title race, though.

For starters, I have almost written off Saturday’s mirror image fixture at the Etihad, such is the fatigue Spurs will be suffering from and how revved-up City will be. Guardiola will not allow anything other than a huge performance and I predict a very comfortable win and some angry, determined post-match celebrations.

This team is far too special to slink away into the bushes and never return this season - Liverpool’s Champions League chances have been greatly enhanced, but their title dream has been damaged. Many will disagree, but I’ll be the one saying “I told you so” next month. Either that or I’ll be the drunken, incorrect lunatic who can’t speak because Liverpool have been crowned champions and I’ve been in town for days on end. The Reds have Cardiff on Sunday, with Neil Warnock still holding a grudge because Rafa Benitez once rested players at Fulham before a Champions League final, which helped get his Sheffield United team relegated. Could do without out it, if I’m honest. Sick of pre-match narratives.

He will be revelling at the thought of damaging Liverpool’s title chances, as well as trying to pull off a miraculous escape act, of course. It should be an away win - if it isn’t, Klopp’s men don’t merit being champions, quite frankly. We will reconvene on here after next Wednesday’s Manchester derby, which I am equally convinced will end in three points for City, with Man United both not good enough and likely to not be quite as up for it as usual, shall we say.

You’re not kidding me, lads, there’s no way you’re going to give it your all when Liverpool are hovering so ominously waiting to swoop. Prove me wrong!

 Henry Jackson


18th April 2019 –  “Please be ‘Spursy’, Spurs”, my co-correspondent had implored last time out. He was talking before the Liverpool-Spurs game not the Champions League couplet City and Spurs have just enjoyed, but all in all, I thjnk we can safely say Spurs were about as Spursy as can be, losing coquettishly at Anfield after looking like winning, beating City strongly in their home Champions League game, then somehow surviving that tumultuous night at the Etihad that some of us are still recovering from.

I have again been watching Liverpool very closely for cracks. Psychological, architectural, physical, any kind of fissure will do. After a while you becomea kind of, let’s call it what it is, “expert”. Is Van Dijk limping? Klopp looks worried or is it me? Origi’s coming on!  Ian Rush looks like he’s wet himself …..
Every time I think I see one, a crack in Liverpool’s armour, someone – Henderson, Mane, that little goblin Salah turns up with a mortar board, an implement for applying putty and a dollop of said paste and covers the bloody thing over. Hey presto, no cracks!

It is clearly long past a joke.

If Tottenham was painful to watch, with Sissoko’s immaculate brainfart in front of goal and Lloris’ joke goalkeeping, Southampton also provided hope, only for it to be snatched away. Character aplenty from Liverpool but a slightly soft underbelly that keeps getting them into sticky situations in the first place.

The same thing seemed to be happening in the home game with Chelsea, where Hazard prompted and probed and Chelsea went about their business in a cautious but solid enough fashion. Then, bang, two goals in a flash, one from Salah that appeared to be hit from the far side of the moon and Chelsea were gone, sunk, trampled down.

Punch drunk, the Londoners rallied.

Still they had time to hit the post and miss a presentable chance (both at the foot of Hazard). Once those two had passed without incident, Liverpool could play out the game calmly and appropriately for all present. Porto on the European front provided almost as few problems as they had the year before, the Portuguese fizzing an early chance just over in the return leg and then being caught out by the quick break, quick thinking, decisive football that has typified Liverpool’s season.

And now we must trust in Neil Warnock, of all people. I have to say (and I have to think it, in order to keep what is left of my sanity) that perhaps the slip will come in one of the bankers. Perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place all this time, just like Mrs Marple. Cardiff have been playing reasonably well of late, got no change from a good performance against Chelsea and were hard done by at Turf Moor too. Their win at Brighton showed guts and character aplenty and sets up this weekend’s home game with Liverpool quite nicely. It is of course the hope that kills you.

City, meanwhile, are forced to look into the eyes of those Tottenham players once more. What they see there will tell them what comes next: glassy-eyed tiredness? The bloodshot orbs of libidinous over-celebration? The glint of cocky one-upmanship? And when Spurs can focus after all this merriment and carnage, what on earth will they see in Mancunian eyes?

City’s season stands, still stands, on the edge of greatness. Winning their last six games of the season will mean securing an unprecedented treble of League Cup, FA Cup and Premier League. You can throw in the Community Shield – as we always used to, but are snorted at if we do it these days – to make it four, if you are brave. City won their last six/five league games in each of the title winning seasons of 2012 and 2014. Last season, five of the last six were won, despite no need to do so.

Can we now expect a solemn bout of righteous indignation from these City players, removed so cruelly from European competition? Should Liverpool fear what comes next, or hope for more slip-ups against the same Tottenham team that ruined the unreachable dream?

Only it cannot be the same Tottenham team. The energy it took to lose 4-3 on Wednesday will have flushed them out as completely as a tanker load of high octane laxative. The elation of what they achieved will have dulled the senses. If City can channel their anger, all should be well. As I was saying, it’s the hope that kills you.

The midweek shenanigans only serve to leave both clubs juggling an unwieldy dilemma. Liverpool now have the extra games to play, not City. And they must play them against Messi’s Barcelona. That will take a gargantuan physical and mental effort and may well be to no avail. Where does that leave Klopp’s men? City meanwhile are still walking the same tightrope as before. Drop a point, any point, in any game, and risk handing a crucial advantage to Liverpool. With Tottenham and United next, plus a tricky-looking trip to Burnley, the pressure’s on. Keep your cool and manage the games like you did at Selhurst Park, serene, smooth and successful, and the future is yours. Panic like you did in the Champions League and the roof comes in again. Only Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool, United and Chelsea have completed the double in modern times. Only United have done more than that, adding the Champions League to the double in 1999, at a time when City were heaving themselves past Gillingham to climb out of the third tier. No club has ever won all three domestic trophies (four if you etc etc…) in the same season. The secret for City and for Guardiola, busy choosing the right words of encouragement, is to forget as swiftly as possible last Wednesday night and focus on the glittering prizes and the place in the history books that await the brave and the nerveless.  

-       Simon Curtis


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