Saturday, November 10, 2018


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

Moral Indignation and the Loss of Mojo

31st October 2018A week is a long time in football.

Good grief indeed. For Liverpool, what started as a campaign to treasure, the sense of finally being in a position to put in a proper challenge has begun to look like the toast that stayed too long under the grill. Certainly the strange heat coming off the Belgrade toaster seems to have frazzled Liverpool’s already fragile form a little more.

Suddenly, doubts are surfacing.

Still just two points off the top, but with a goal difference dragging an eye-popping 13 adrift of City, who have banged in six against each of their last two opponents, Liverpool’s difficult run of fixtures is beginning to pan out how it was feared it might in the previous edition of Dispatches.

The two four-goal salvos against Cardiff and Red Star have been put in the shadow somewhat by a draw at Arsenal and the lethargic cave-in at the Marakana. Suddenly, a crisis of confidence and team selection is rearing its ugly head. How swiftly fortunes change. A home fixture against the leakiest defence in the Premier League (Fulham) may serve as the pick-me-up needed, especially as that troublesome fixture list then resumes a distinctly tough look, with away trips to Watford, an absolute crunch game in Paris and the Merseyside Derby. There is no respite coming, so Liverpool’s fixture with Fulham now looks absolutely essential in shoring up what currently seems to be fading form and confidence.

City, meanwhile, plough on without ever having looked like they are properly into top gear yet. How this plays on Liverpool’s minds is critical. All this without Kevin de Bruyne. All this with the swishing vortex of press speculation there to distract the smooth process of winning first eleven fixtures. All this without really playing a single game this season where the symmetry and cutting edge has properly surpassed any of last season’s top moments.

Liverpool’s problems have transferred themselves from last season’s backward focus through to areas of the team that were in 2017-18 its strongest points. The defence now operates as a compact success story around the burgeoning talent of Virgil van Dijk. The goalkeeping doubts are over, but now that high pressure midfield that worked its socks off to such great effect last season, suddenly looks ponderous and ill at ease. New boys Fabinho and Naby Keita have not yet settled or do not get picked. A strange urge to persevere with Sturridge and Lallana looks like a disaster waiting to happen. Henderson’s feverish energy seems dulled.

Even more worrying was the fact that master motivator Herr Klopp talked of “lost mojo” after the Belgrade no-show. Now backed by heavy spending, Liverpool’s lively spirit and high-energy game was exactly what has helped make them the challengers they are considered to be this season. The widely-accepted influence of the Kop in previous seasons of success was suddenly replicated in foreign fields and used against Liverpool, as the Red Star fans kicked up a decent cacophony to wilt Liverpool’s concentration. 80% possession took the visitors nowhere in the second half. Had the blistering draw at the Emirates siphoned some of that famous energy away into the dark Belgrade night?

"It was a good football atmosphere. I don't think it would have been impossible to perform to be honest. It was not that we had to be afraid or whatever. It was a football atmosphere. Whatever they sang, we don't understand. It was only loud…" - Jurgen Klopp

Lively backing for City v Shakhtar

If City’s week of goals was tinged with anxiety about the increasingly florid tails from Der Spiegel, they did not show any hint of being adversely affected. In fact, the crowd’s exemplary reaction at the Etihad on Wednesday night, where a full house noisily created its own "football atmosphere", shows all of this moral shuffling and slicing may have just the effect Liverpool were dreading.

The moral whirlpool kicked up by the German magazine’s “explosive revelations” is probably best put into perspective by Larry Ryan’s superbly balanced piece in the Irish Examiner.

Meanwhile, City go into the Manchester derby in a state of controlled indignation. The crowd is right behind them. Everything is coming together. The them-against-us doctrine so beloved of Jose Mourinho in the good old days may just have been created in its purest form by outside forces instead.

That can only spell trouble for the chasing pack.

  Simon Curtis

31st October 2018    When school children are taught the history of the Premier League - and lets face it, that’s definitely going to happen - it’s possible the past week will feature heavily in the dozen or so classes dedicated to modern Manchester City.

Bloody hell, it’s been a busy one. Twelve goals scored in two games, one of which resulted from a penalty-that-should-never-have-been and in turn led to further accusations of anti-City bias within the mainstream media. And then, of course, there has been the cloud that’s hung over everything: Financial Fair Play. 

The revelations, published across a number of days by Der Spiegel, have created a rabbit hole that I’m keen not to delve too far down. Something I do want to touch on, however, is the focus Der Spiegel’s reporting has brought on to the conflict that exists between “elite” and “new money” clubs, with the former seen by some as the enemy. Greedy protectionists in it for themselves. 

Fair enough, but what hasn’t been, and never is, addressed is how a club becomes “elite” in the first place? And once it has reached that status, does it not deserve some level of protection?

Take Liverpool. How did we become “elite”? Without boring your tits off too much, it started when Bill Shankly became manager in 1959 and through his genius and hard work, led the club from Second Division dossers to First Division champions. He then left and was replaced by Bob Paisley, who it turned out was also a genius. Then came Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, both brilliant in their own right, with the latter also a brilliant player who played alongside a series of brilliant players during his time at Anfield. 

Since the 1990s, things have been less brilliant for Liverpool but we’ve still done pretty well (two major European trophies, three FA Cups, four league cups ... loads of belting songs) and ultimately all of this came about through bottom-up growth and sustained development. In other words, elitism earned. 

Supporters of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus, to name just three other members of the “elite”, could make similar arguments, and that’s where the resentment comes in. We’re getting on with trying to win things, which is hard enough as it is, and then come along the “new-money” clubs - Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain ... Manchester City - to make things even harder. It doesn’t feel right, a shortcut taken to success, and to top it off, us “elite” supporters then hear two of those clubs have been in the kitchen cooking the books. Annoyed? Just a tad. 

I’m very close to the edge of the rabbit hole now so will take a step back and say no more about FFP. Instead I’ll move onto Raheem Sterling’s penalty incident against Shakhtar Donetsk. In summary: I don’t really care.

It’s interesting, and no doubt a talking point, but we all saw what happened and ultimately it came down to a mistake by the referee. To accuse City, and Sterling in particular, of foul play is a smokescreen. 

No other club or player would have held their hands up had they found themselves in the same situation. More so, few supporters would want their own club or player to do so either. Make no mistake, if Liverpool are drawing 0-0 with Fulham on Sunday and Sadio Mane falls over his feet in the box and is awarded a penalty, I want the penalty. Sportsmanship? There are three points on offer and the ref’s delivered them to us on a silver plate. Only a fool would turn down such generosity. 

Some of the headlines that followed the win over Shakhtar have caused outrage among
City fans and deepened the belief that journalists are out to get their club. As I’ve said in a previous Dispatch, that’s genuinely not the case, but in this specific case I appreciate the anger. Accusations of City lacking class and (ho ho!) not believing in fair play were unnecessary and overshadowed what was another outstanding display by Pep’s boys. Six more goals and, given United’s victory over Juventus on the same night, intrigue galore ahead of this weekend’s derby.

In normal circumstances, I’d want City to win. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Instead, Liverpool are in an actual fight for the title with the reigning champions while the real enemy - them in red and black - are coughing and spluttering a little way back. 

So yes, I’ll be cheering on United. Yet in the back of my mind there sits the thought that, actually, it may be better if City win. Partly for the look on Jose Mourinho’s face that would follow and partly because, maybe, Liverpool haven’t got what it takes to be champions, after all. 

We’re playing well but not as consistently well as City, as seen starkly during the 2-0 defeat to Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday. It was a really poor display by Liverpool and another against Fulham could make this season less about being champions and more about finishing in the top four. In that case, United would indeed be the real danger, coming over the hill and pulling hard on our tails. 

Much to play for, then, at the top of the Premier League, and for the team at the very top, another big moment after all the others that have come and gone in recent days. 

Sachin Nakrani

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