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Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis
24th October 2018 – Liverpool’s turgid weekend win at Huddersfield seemed to contain very little of that magic Klopp sparkle, carrying instead a healthy portion of good fortune. A turning point? Or a team hanging on for dear life until things - and crucial players’ form – decide to take a turn for the better?
There were no lucky moments for the game to pivot on, as happened at the Etihad with strange refereeing and an even stranger second goal, but you got the distinct feeling that this was a Liverpool performance that would have warranted nul points had they been playing anybody but dire second season syndrome Huddersfield Town.
With Firmino and Mane missing, things looked rubbery and warped. Adam Lallana pranced and postured and Daniel Sturridge did broadly the same. Little Salah, carrying the weight of the world now he is the planet's darling, looked leaden once again. Cement in his boots, apart from one crucial frisky finish that reminded us all that he can still do it.
But doing it, on a regular basis, he is not and, boy does that make a difference to how forbidding Liverpool look.
The drubbing of Red Star Belgrade may well be the catalyst the Kop has been waiting for. More Salah goals (50 from 65 now), a lightening of step and things beginning to look good again. Luck, as Liverpool know, plays its part in these crucial, pivotal moments that can change a season for the better or worse, or kick-start a new direction. On this occasion, it was the luck of playing Huddersfield and Red Star, two of the worst participants in the respective competitions that Liverpool faced them in.
The mind goes back to Mark Robbins for Manchester United at Forest and Adrian Heath for Everton at Oxford United, two cup games that saw ultimately iconic managers possibly one more defeat away from calamity. Messrs Ferguson and Kendall survived to become serial winners with their respective clubs, but it was close and they were lucky.
Luck played its part for the great Liverpool sides too. When you’re properly good, things tend to just drift your way. Subliminal bubbles build up in officials’ brains, causing delirium and the taking of decisions that they would not normally entertain.
Amongst Liverpool supporters of that generation, the name probably deserves a mere flicker of attention. For any City fans there that night, however, it is a name that resonates as forcefully and clearly as if someone had just hit you over the head with a bin lid.
ALF GREY. For it is he.
For Mr Grey was the upright, quasi-military-looking fellow, who managed single-handedly to whistle City out of a hard-fought, mud and feathers League Cup semi final with Liverpool.
This was the well-oiled Liverpool, the goal-scoring machine of the 70s that steamrollered all-comers. Even with proper referees you knew you were in for a torrid time. City, busy beginning a bad run against Liverpool which – quite incredibly -endures to this day, were on the up with new manager John Bond, who had been asked to wipe the memories of the failed Malcolm Allison experiment.
City, fast out of the traps, were one-up inside three minutes, or at least that is what the heaving Kippax believed. Grey had other ideas, though, and did very much what Jonathan Moss did at the Etihad last weekend: he bottled the big decision in favour of the big club. Inventing a push from Kevin Reeves which nobody had seen, the man in black ruled out the goal and asked Ray Clemence if he’d like to take a free kick instead.
Oddly, this moment not only stained a chunk of my childhood, it has remained as a shadow across my life ever since. That City still cannot shake the Liverpool hoodoo only serves to make the whole shebang more personal, more evil-smelling and more painful.
Of course, City didn't make it to Wembley. That disallowed goal and a late winner for the visitors, stemming from a free kick that only Alf Grey understood the geometry of, sank the Blues and the lung-busting draw at Anfield in the second leg did not suffice.
But ask any Liverpool fan and they will remember instances like that at every ground they visited. Referees, administrators, they are all agog in the face of winners. Which special alignment of the planets allowed United to go 300 years at Old Trafford without conceding a penalty? Liverpool were similarly well treated in the 70s and 80s. They earned it, you scream. These things even themselves out, you stammer. Fruit and nuts, I reply. It is the simple dazzling light of the star manager, the whiff of victory from David Silva’s armpits that send them off kilter. After years of bitter defeat and gales of laughter as Mark Clattenburg and Chris Foy dealt swiftly with our fragile hopes, things are on the move for City now. Liverpool too, with Klopp’s charming teeth and that persuasive breeze of sound off the Kop, can still rely on soft refereeing skills to see them right when the going gets tough.
It is folklore and hokus pokus of this kind that keep us all chattering, of course. Some souls even think songs can win them matches. In the long run, however, the Premier League will be won by the best team, not the luckiest one.
– Simon Curtis
24th October 2018 – There are several ways in which a club knows it has hit the big time. Great players, great goals, great wins ... great trophies. Another is absolutely and utterly getting away with it against a smaller side.
Welcome to the big time, Manchester City.
Bloody hell, that was some display by Jonathan Moss at the Eithad Stadium on Saturday, failing to act on two shocking challenges on Burnley players, from Vincent Kompany and Leroy Sane, as well as allowing City a goal when it should have been ruled out given David Silva was practically in a different part of Manchester as he delivered the cross from which Bernardo Silva made it 2-0.
It would be foolish to suggest Moss’s non-calls affected the overall outcome - City were yet again excellent and would have triumphed one way or another. But the referee’s ineptitude no doubt contributed to the size of the scoreline, as well as posing a broader question - would City have got those decisions in a different era, specifically the one before all the money and trophies?
It’s possible. After all, referees regularly deliver shocking decisions in all manner of games and circumstances, but there was something distinctly distinct about Moss’s display - that of a man whose mind had been swayed by where he was and who his hosts where.
It happens to the best of us. Literally. As a Liverpool fan there have been numerous games over the years when I’ve looked on with silent surprise and relief as a referee has totally allowed us to get away with one. A penalty not given when one of our defenders has clearly tripped one of the opposition attackers in the box, a red card not shown when one of our midfielders has taken out one of theirs, an offside not called when one of our forwards is, well, offside. You get away with a lot more when you have a lot more kudos, and especially at home.
Just look at Arsenal’s 3-1 win against Leicester at the Emirates - fully deserved but how did Chris Kavanagh, the referee, not see Rob Holding’s handball in the first half? He was in the perfect position. The only explanation is that in the critical half-a-second he had to make a decision, Kavanagh remembered where he was, mulled over the grief he’d get for pointing to the spot and decided to pretend he hadn’t seen an obvious offence. In short, he bottled it.
So City are not the first, and will certainly not be the last, big team to find a friend in the man who is supposed to be officiating one of their games with complete neutrality and professionalism. And, for sure, any team that wins the title requires a bit of luck along the way, no matter how brilliant they are. Think back to the Manchester United sides that won title after title in the 1990s - they were supreme but it was definitely a bit odd how the opposition never got a penalty at Old Trafford.
So City remain top and it only helps their cause that Kevin de Bruyne is back from injury. But Liverpool are right on their tails despite not playing particularly well and having the harder run of games, and the next set of fixtures could lead to a notable shift given Jurgen Klopp’s men are at home to Cardiff while those belonging to Pep Guardiola travel to Tottenham for a Monday night showdown at Wembley.
A tough assignment for City, who were immaculate in victory over Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek but may require a bit of luck to succeed against Spurs. As Burnley can testify, it wouldn’t be the first time.
– Sachin Nakrani