After their 2-0 midweek victory at Everton, Manchester City moved back to the Premier League’s summit for the first time since December 8th 2018, leaving the title well and truly up for grabs.
It would have been difficult to find many Liverpool fans who slept easy on Wednesday night. Not only would they wake up on Thursday morning knowing they were no longer top of the Premier League table, but they had to face the indignation that this happened due to the shortcomings of their Merseyside rivals. The sound of City fans celebrating Gabriel Jesus’ 97th minute winner would have echoed far beyond the walls of Goodison Park and into the minds of Liverpool fans up and down the country. It’s enough to give you nightmares.
Liverpool do of course have a game in hand, and City are only above them on goal difference, but Pep Guardiola’s wild celebrations illustrated just how big this win was. He knows that City were far from their best against Everton, but as footballing cliches so often dictate; titles are won and lost in games like these. Now, after almost falling behind Liverpool by seven points just a week ago, City somehow find themselves above the reds going into the weekend. Liverpool’s detractors (of which there are many) were unsurprisingly keen to remind us all of Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip and ‘Crystanbul’, to stoke the fears that ‘it’s happening again’.
Some have made the argument that chasing Man City down, might even be better suited to Liverpool. So long has been their wait for a league title, that perhaps they are too mentally fragile to cope with the pressure of being title favourites. This is a view shared by Gordon Strachan, who told Sky Sports:
Source: Sky Sports, The Debate
“Sometimes it is better to be a bit behind in the league because the pressure is off and then you might have a late run at it.”
With 12 games to go though, there is still plenty of room for a fresh twist; maybe even involving Tottenham?
While Man City face Chelsea at the Etihad and Liverpool host Bournemouth this weekend in what should be two entertaining games, Sunday 24th February is the first real important date to look out for in the calendar. With City playing in the League Cup final, this is Liverpool’s game in hand – where they face the unenviable task of travelling to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rejuvenated Manchester United. A must win game for Jurgen Klopp’s side, which will give this already ferocious derby an extra layer.
From here, Liverpool’s fixtures are perhaps the most favourable, with City still needing to visit Old Trafford themselves on 16th March. City’s trip to Bournemouth two weeks prior, may also prove to be a potential banana skin, given Bournemouth’s ability to put in a good home performance against the big sides. The only other real test on paper for City could come in April, where they travel to Crystal Palace on the 13th, before hosting Tottenham a week later. Palace are looking to complete the double over City, but considering Tottenham’s poor away record against the top six, Pep Guardiola will surely fancy his chances in this one.
Liverpool will be hoping for a similar result at Anfield, when Tottenham make the trip up north on 31st March. After Man United, Liverpool’s only away fixture against a top 10 side is, for them, an ill-timed Merseyside derby. Although on a terrible run of form, Everton should really have come away from Anfield with a point in December and they will absolutely relish the opportunity to kill their rivals’ title aspirations. The only other potential stumbling block for Liverpool looks to be Chelsea’s visit on 13th April. A vociferous rivalry of the last 20 years that sometimes goes under the radar, Chelsea know full well how to spoil a Liverpool party.
Rating Tottenham’s chances
One of the main reasons Tottenham are not being touted as serious title contenders is that they have by far the most difficult set of games before the end of the season. I’ve already mentioned their record against the top six, and yet the fixture list dictates that they still face trips to Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool, as well as hosting Arsenal. Stranger things have happened, but this weekend could prove crucial. If both City and Liverpool were to drop points (certainly possible), Tottenham could potentially end the weekend only two points off the top. It is, however, a big if.
A title race of unparalleled quality
For neutrals in all this, it just feels nice to have a proper title race again. Despite Man City’s dazzling attacking football and scintillating intensity last year, it was difficult to get excited about a team winning the league by 19 points. Even until December this season, I always quietly expected City to slowly pull away and win the league at a canter. It was only Liverpool’s insatiable appetite for winning games that put paid to this and, until this week, I then became convinced Liverpool would be the ones running away with the title.
Instead, it has developed into an enthralling battle from now until the end of the season. It may not be able to offer the same levels of drama (although give it time) as the ‘Aguerooooo’ season of 2011-12, but the level of quality on show is simply unprecedented. An all time Premier League points record of 101 is still achievable for Liverpool, with even third-place Tottenham still able to reach 96 points. Whichever teams fail in their bid to claim the Premier League crown will rightly feel deflated, disheartened and aggrieved that in virtually any other season they would be champions.
Seasons like this should be celebrated though, as an excellent advert for English football’s continued improvement, and the Premier League’s return to the traditional high level of competition it provides when compared to its European counterparts. Neutrals should all join in appreciation and just be thankful for how lucky we are to see football this good.