Red versus blue. Merseyside versus Manchester. Klopp versus Guardiola. Salah versus Aguero. Alisson versus Ederson. There are so many aspects to the rivalry at the summit of the Premier League table, with one point separating Manchester City from the second-placed Liverpool as they approach the last round of matches.
WHAT HAPPENED IN 2013-14?
The last time the Premier League title was decided on the last round of matches was in 2013-14, remembered as the craziest of all seasons. The year Brendan Rodgers almost outdid himself; the year Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, or SAS (as the British media called them) scored 52 goals on their own; the year Liverpool almost broke their 24-year duck. Ironically, they were outdone by the same side they’re battling with this season.
For the first time in five years, the race for the English Premier League title is set to go right down to the last game
Arsenal started off the season very well, leading the table more than any other side over the course of the season. In February, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho claimed that it was a two-horse race for the title, and that his team might be termed the third little horse. The two horses he referred to were Arsenal and Manchester City. However, within a couple of days of this statement, Liverpool thrashed Arsenal 5-1, kick-starting an 11-game winning run that took them to the cusp of glory. This run included a 3-0 victory at Manchester United, a 4-0 victory at home against Tottenham Hotspur and a 3-2 win in the “title-decider” against Manchester City, which lifted them seven points clear, albeit having played two games more.
Liverpool entered the last three matches with a five-point lead. What followed will forever live in the realms of footballing miracles and the nightmares of Liverpool supporters. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool cult hero and scorer of 13 goals that season, slipped in a crucial game against Chelsea, which allowed Demba Ba to open the scoring; the game ended 2-0 courtesy Mourinho’s “park the bus” tactics and dealt Liverpool a major blow in the title race. In the next game, played under the lights in a packed Selhurst Park, Liverpool were cruising at 3-0. Crystal Palace, coached by Manager of the Year Tony Pulis, produced the comeback of the season, scoring thrice in the final 10 minutes to shatter any remaining hopes of a title win. Manchester City won their final five matches to overtake Liverpool and win the league by two points.
Re-equipped with a potent attacking force in the form of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool have established themselves as a fearsome side who play quick, exciting football under Jurgen Klopp. Their biggest strength lies in their ability to launch cross-field diagonals at will. This is made possible by the freedom granted to their full backs — Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold — both of whom have notched 11 assists this season. Their midfield is governed by one of the most underrated players in the world, Georginio Wijnaldum. And in their backline, Liverpool boast the second-most expensive goalkeeper of all time in the form of Alisson Becker, and the most expensive defender and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, Virgil van Dijk. This is the first time since John Terry won the vote in 2004-05 that a defender has picked up this accolade.
Liverpool were seven points clear at the turn of the year, but a 2-1 loss to Manchester City reduced the gap to four points. They suffered a wobble in their form immediately afterwards, drawing against Leicester City and West Ham United before finding top form again with a 5-0 demolition of Watford. Their star player Salah found his goalscoring touch at the right time too. He has five goals in the last five games, including an absolute “worldie” against Chelsea, as well as being the leading goal scorer in the league with 22. However, the Egypt international suffered a head injury in the 3-2 victory against Newcastle last weekend, and only time will tell if he’s fit enough to feature in the season finale. With Firmino already out for the season, this knock has definitely come at the wrong time for Liverpool, as they try to put an end to their 29-year title drought.
Some people call Manchester City the best club team ever from England. When Pep Guardiola arrived in 2016, he was given a competitive squad past its prime. The new coach instantly offloaded the older heads in the roster, including club legends Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta. Guardiola also brought with him the intricacies he is renowned for; how the grass is to be cut to exactly 19 millimeters, the way fields will be watered to allow for his team to execute slick passing, how his players are to follow a well-defined and laid out diet and training plan. And when he was given the green light to spend big, he bolstered his defensive ranks and reinforced his attacking options.
In an almost “invincible” season for Liverpool, Manchester City have been the only team to beat them. And had it not been for a stoppage time Riyad Mahrez penalty miss, City would have completed the double over their title rivals.
Manchester City is the personification of a machine. Their relentless style of play, launching wave after wave of attacks on the opposing defenders throughout the course of ninety minutes is remarkable, to say the least. And they play deep; they have reinforcements for every position on the pitch. The fact that they’re favourites to land the title in a season in which their MVP, Kevin de Bruyne, has been restricted to just 956 minutes of action due to injury is testament to this depth and stamina. Like Liverpool, they boast an expensive goalkeeper in the form of Ederson Moraes, and a glittering back four which can be constituted of Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, captain Vincent Kompany, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, who was the leading assister this season before he got injured. In the absence of De Bruyne, Bernardo and David Silva have stepped up big time; while the PFA Young Players for the past two seasons, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, have formed a deadly attacking trio with their leading goal scorer of all time, Sergio Aguero.
This has been a season of very fine margins, and it looks like the title will be defined by one of these small details. In an almost “invincible” season for Liverpool, Manchester City have been the only team to beat them. And had it not been for a stoppage time Riyad Mahrez penalty miss, City would have completed the double over their title rivals.
Even when City did beat Liverpool in early January, they required a heroic John Stones clearance, off the line in such a manner that it avoided the onrushing Mohamed Salah, to see them through. Goal line technology showed that Liverpool were a mere 11 millimeters away from taking the lead at the home of the defending champions. Similarly, in the game against Burnley, goal line technology was at the centre of attention again, with Aguero squeezing in a shot that crossed the line by just 29 millimeters. City won the game 1-0.
However, good luck hasn’t just been on the side of Manchester City. Liverpool have scored more late goals than anyone else in the top five leagues in Europe, amassing 19 goals in the last 15 minutes of matches this season alone. They have been called lucky, benefitting from refereeing errors, opposition errors and own goals.
All things aside, this has been a season for the ages; a rivalry like none other. The way they’ve both pushed each other to their limits has been breathtaking to watch from a neutral point of view: City have won 13 games straight; Liverpool have won eight on the trot. They’re both set to achieve the highest point tallies ever seen in the Premier League, barring City’s 100-point haul from last season. And if Pep Guardiola claims that this Liverpool side is the best he’s ever faced, well that’s saying something.
Today, May 12, 7pm. Brighton vs Manchester City. Liverpool vs Wolves. Don’t forget to tune in to witness history.
The writer tweets @tahagoheer
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 12th, 2019