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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
And now for the sprint finish...
18th April 2019 – It feels like the planet has been revolving more slowly during the last few agonising weeks of the season. Enduring City’s win at Turf Moor was a typically unpleasant experience in this regard. You wait all week for the next game to come along, then – once it has started in all its crushing multicoloured tension – you can’t wait for it to be over. Still no government health warnings issued inside your matchday programmes at Anfield and the Etihad. It’s bordering on an NHS scandal.
Pain and suffering all the way. Finger nails bitten to the quick. Personal relationships eroded. Personal hygiene called into question. For some of us, there is only gin left between the end of the football season and a swift descent towards complete madness
Liverpool’s quest has – as the days have passed – become slowly more tricky. City’s game in hand, a tough-looking contest at Old Trafford, gradually turned into a cakewalk against the worst United team I can remember since they went down to the old second division in 1974. Burnley proved much more difficult and millimetres separated success from disaster for City. Those legions of Liverpool fans hoping against hope that United could produce a derby shock were disappointed.
While City had managed on several occasions to steal unlikely points at Old Trafford in the Ferguson era, with a side often dismally short of talent, United could not find the wherewithal to do something similar in 2019. What all of those desperate City sides of the past had had was character, an element almost totally lacking in the current, expensively assembled United squad. To see Raheem Sterling jumping to beat Paul Pogba for an 84th minute header deep in midfield was to see both sides of the coin: commitment v laxity; effort v. doziness; hunger v. vanity. An eye-catching moment. To Pogba probably a lost cause in a safe part of the pitch. To Sterling a ball worth fighting for despite the lack of inches and the likelihood of missing out to the giant alongside him. It is on this incredible hunger that Guardiola has built his City dynasty.
Liverpool’s 5-0 walk in the park against a demoralised and frankly hopeless Huddersfield side had set the weekend up again. Second season syndrome has fallen upon the Yorkshire side like a truck load of coal and they managed to go through the motions for less than a minute before caving in to Liverpool’s lively attackers. Mane, the scorer of two more goals in this game, has clearly been this season’s best of show from the front three, with Mohamed Salah’s quirky ability to ride strong challenges everywhere but the penalty box, where he inevitably crumples like a paper bag in a monsoon, bringing a more negative press his way than was the case twelve months ago.
But now we had a different slant. The extra game had been played and the league table now represents where we are with two to go for both sides. That Liverpool are clinging on at this stage is a major achievement, as has been said since Christmas. To be behind after a season’s exertions of this calibre must be all the more galling for Klopp’s squad. They could hardly have been asked to do more than what has already been achieved.
The plaudits have rightly come their way for a sensational title tilt and perhaps less so towards a City side. whose dominance has seldom been matched in the recent history of domestic football in England. To have gathered 192 points in two seasons is a phenomenal feat worth shouting from the highest steeple, but the press has been slow to come forward with the praise. Maybe everything effusive that could be said was said last season, but to come up with a season almost as dominant as the previous one is something else. A level of consistency that blows the mind. Steady, churning power, allied to the grace and élan of that startling midfield creator Bernardo Silva.
The little Portuguese so frail and brittle-looking, has been City’s tormentor in chief this season, taking on the role played so admirably by David Silva for nearly a decade. Vincent Kompany too, has come back in to help shore up the defence. It was pointed out on Twitter that Kompany’s stats from 2011 demolished those of Van Dijk from this season, but Kompany successfully avoided any of the monsoon of praise showered on the Dutchman this season. No deflection away from Van Dijk’s sterling work. He has made all the difference to a Liverpool side that was too open last season, but perhaps another small example of how differently the press treats Liverpool and City.
One thing is certain, whichever side finishes in front after 38 games deserves the highest possible praise for their efforts and those finishing second should not be forgotten..
– Simon Curtis
2nd May 2019 – Football is cruel, at least if you’re a Liverpool fan.
To be honest, it’s getting me down a bit now.
This side are brilliant - the best I have seen in 25 years of supporting the Reds - and yet they are now heavily odds-on to win nothing this season. People will mock it, articles will be written labelling Jurgen Klopp and his player ‘bottlers’ and it will all be deeply unjust. This lot deserve to be remembered for years to come. I can stomach Liverpool falling short because of true greatness up against them, however, which is what has happened to the Reds this season, as their timing has proved typically unlucky.
I sat and watched my team outplay Barcelona at the Nou Camp for large periods on Wednesday night - when does that ever happen? But they somehow lost 3-0. Why? Well, some questionable finishing certainly played a part, but Liverpool also happened to come up against the greatest person to have ever kicked a football. Lionel Messi was the difference yet again and that free-kick was a moment of pure artistry by comfortably the best there has ever been.
Call me rude, or a know-it-all, but if you don’t think he is the so-called GOAT, I fail to respect your opinion on football.
If Liverpool had Messi and Barca had Mohamed Salah - you’re great too Mo, don’t get me wrong - they would have annihilated the newly crowned La Liga champions. But we don’t, though, and it looks set to be the difference between European glory and no European glory for another year.
I’m a bit cranky, can you tell?
Anyway, let’s talk about City, because that’s what I’m primarily here to do.
If Liverpool are up against a footballing genius in Europe, they find themselves tussling with English football’s most dominant team ever in City, in my opinion. Perhaps they need to do this for a few more years and win at least one Champions League crown, to officially merit that title, but I’ve never seen a team be so dominant in domestic matches. That last time we spoke, the Manchester derby was fast approaching: one that I correctly predicted would end in a City victory.
While United gave it a go for a little while, they are so vastly inferior to their local rivals that I was genuinely questioning the mental state of those predicting anything other than an away win in the days leading up the game. And there was that man Bernardo Silva again making the difference - a man I have waxed lyrical about all season, and someone I am starting to dislike as much as I admire. That’s a compliment, because the best players for your rivals should leave you tearing your hair out and finding reasons to loathe them. He’s an absolute nark and I’d love him in the Liverpool team.
A special thanks to David de Gea for deciding to stop being a goalkeeper just as City come to town, by the way. I couldn’t possibly have seen that coming!
The Reds, meanwhile, had seen off Cardiff by the time the derby started, and then thrashed a hapless Huddersfield side two days later, returning to the Premier League summit. It was pressure back on City, but as the weeks have ticked by and it has become increasingly clear that Pep Guardiola’s side are performing like men possessed in the league, a trip to Burnley was another guaranteed three points. Those are the words of a footballing pessimist, of course, and there were many tipping the trip to Turf Moor to be the day that City came up short.
I was sat in the pub with mates on Saturday night - one United fan, one Tottenham fan - as they told me all about what a tough ask it was going to be for City and how they thought this was still going to be Liverpool’s year.
You’re not kidding me lads, I’ve seen this all before. The football Gods have no time for Liverpool and it’s something I must accept. I sat watching the Burnley game with a truly sickening hangover and my hazy mindset probably helped me endure it, in truth. Not for a single second did I expect anything other than City to triumph, and if Sergio Aguero’s goal hadn’t crossed the line, they would only have scored soon after. Their level of dominance after the break was ridiculous, but I can’t blame Burnley for that, who did their best.
It was all very predictable. Of course, the current narrative is now surrounding balls and goal lines, with Liverpool agonisingly deprived of a goal at the Etihad in January and Aguero benefiting at Turf Moor.
That will now apparently be the reason Liverpool don’t win the league, or potentially those draws against Everton and United. Either way they’ve blown it, right? Good one. The fact of the matter is that the only reason they won’t be crowned champions is because of City. Without their remarkable feats, the Reds would have sealed glory weeks ago.
Summing up the true immature tribalism that exists among fans in the modern game, this Liverpool outfit will suffer more mocking for missing out on the final day than if they had tailed off in February. I have no doubt that Guardiola is staggered that Klopp and his players have lasted the course of the entire season, keeping up with a truly relentless force. They are the second-best team in Europe, regardless of the Barcelona result. Fellow Liverpool supporters can whinge at me for uttering this next line, or accuse me of not being a ‘proper fan’ and saying I ‘don’t deserve’ this team, but the title race is done in my eyes.
I simply don’t see where City slip-up from this point on, and if anything, the Reds’ trip to Newcastle on Saturday looks like the game where the dream could officially die. That Barcelona defeat will have hit the players hard and I would not be shocked to see them struggle to pick themselves up at St James’ Park.
If they do, securing three more points in the process, I won’t be holding out much hope of Leicester doing Liverpool a favour. The Foxes are a good team, with good players and talented, if slightly odd, manager, but their style will play into City’s hands. Brendan Rodgers will attack, the space afforded to City will be laughable and they will probably win handsomely in the end. That’s life.
We will reconvene before the final day of the season next week - here’s hoping the title race is actually still alive at that point, because the Champions League is looking like a lost cause I don’t feel angry and heartbroken by Liverpool likely falling short in both competitions, but my god it all feels desperately unfair.
We used up all our luck in Istanbul.
- Henry Jackson