In the end it didn’t amount to much more than a hill of beans. But the inconclusive nature of that particular showdown won’t stop today being heralded as the biggest Merseyside derby in living memory.
The idea that Liverpool are perpetually perched on the edge of a precipice issues from the suspicion that if Manchester City edge ahead they’ll pull away like an Olympic middle distance athlete rounding a rival on the last bend. There is much talk of the irresistible effects of momentum.
Yet real title races are rarely so clearcut. The draw at Old Trafford was no more important for Liverpool than Wednesday’s win over Watford. Today’s game has great historical resonance but the same number of points will be available against Burnley this day week and Fulham the Sunday after that.
There’s an impatience about our determination to identify games as irrevocable turning points which suggests we might be losing the ability to appreciate the ebb and flow of a proper old-fashioned title race.
Right now the consensus is that the pendulum has swung decisively in Manchester City’s favour. Yet it’s just 33 days since City’s defeat by Newcastle was supposed to have handed the title to Liverpool. Had Jurgen Klopp’s team beaten Leicester City at Anfield the following night they’d have moved seven points clear. Instead, the 1-1 result there presaged a run of three draws in five games which, though Liverpool still lead the league if they win today, has seen City reinstalled as title favourites.
Now everything is being seen through the prism of City dominance. Yet on Wednesday night it was Liverpool who looked full of life and short of worries when sticking five past Watford. Over at the Etihad the champions needed a dodgy penalty to scrape past West Ham. City’s League Cup final performance was no more impressive than Liverpool’s display against Manchester United but only the latter was taken as an indictment of a team wilting under duress.
Is it any wonder Jurgen Klopp has expressed his frustration at the lack of appreciation for what his team have achieved so far this season? It’s as though the intensity of the focus on Liverpool has led to distorted vision. In the distance you can practically hear the murmurs of old ‘Anfield legends’ limbering up to declare that anything but a title means it’s time for Klopp to go.
But it’s Liverpool’s challenge which has given this season its unmistakably epic quality in stark contrast to all those years when the race was done and dusted by now and Sky cheerleaders were reduced to bigging up ‘a really fascinating struggle for the Champions League spots’. Liverpool’s wait has been so long and the club’s struggles so profound that should they win the title it would be one of the great emotional moments in English sport. Klopp’s challenge feels infinitely more impressive than the one mounted by Brendan Rodgers five seasons ago.
It was a weaker Premier League back then, something underlined when Leicester City won the title two seasons later. The big clubs all seemed to be in a period of transition and 86 points, the third lowest in the last 15 seasons, was enough for Manchester City to triumph. There might be no such thing as a soft Premier League title but that was certainly a handy one.
By comparison, Liverpool now have to overcome a City team which last season set a record points tally and looked set for years of Barcelona or Bayern Munich style dominance. At the current rate Liverpool will need around 94 points, the second highest total ever, to win this year’s title.
The remarkable thing is that Liverpool have so far maintained this punishing pace while misfiring in certain areas. The four big close season signings, totalling £160m, who were supposed to turn the Reds into genuine contenders have, with one exception, been peripheral figures.
That exception is, of course, Alisson, a ‘keeper good enough to make a significant difference to any team let alone one which last season might at times have been better off employing the old schoolyard ‘last one back is the goalie’ tactic. His brilliant intervention to snatch the ball away from a goalbound Jesse Lingard last Sunday preserved a point in the same way that his last-gasp save against Napoli kept Liverpool in Europe. He has been a huge success.
Naby Keita, on the other hand, may be the biggest flop of the Premier League season. The £52m Liverpool paid RB Leipzig made the Guinean the most expensive outfield player signed in the close season. Yet he has rarely showed the form which saw him selected for the Bundesliga’s 2017-’18 team of the season
Not only has Keita, who scored nine goals for Leipzig last term, failed to find the target but he has only provided one assist. Occasionally he will beat a couple of players with an ease which provides a tantalising hint of what might be, but overall Keita has been a frustrating figure, not least because you sense that were he to catch fire it could be the missing piece in the title winning jigsaw.
The £39m paid to Monaco for Fabinho hasn’t looked a great investment either, his pair of assists accompanied by a single goal which gives himself and Keita a grand total of one compared to the 17 of last season.
Xherdan Shaqiri’s contribution has been fitful, though six goals for £13.5m seems a positive bargain by comparison with the underwhelming performances of the other pair. At Old Trafford Keita and Shaqiri were on the bench while against City in January none of the three started as Klopp plumped for the more prosaic virtues of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. Practically forgotten injury victim Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a reliable provider of ammunition last season with seven assists, would have come in handy this season.
The perception that the trio of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have been a diminished force isn’t entirely true when it comes to the Premier League. Mane has already hit 14 league goals to last season’s 10 while Firmino’s nine isn’t that great of a fall-off from the 15 he hit last term. Last season, much of their best work was done in Europe where they scored 21 between them. It’s fairer to say that Mane has improved and Firmino disimproved slightly this term.
Mo Salah’s season can only be judged as disappointing if you believed all that hype last season about him challenging Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for world number one status. Salah is good but he’s not in the same class as Messi, who is almost never subdued in the way the Egyptian was last week against United. Yet he is still second top scorer in the Premier League and is Liverpool’s second biggest contributor of assists after the splendid Andy Robertson. He’s also been the club’s second best player.
The best has been Virgil van Dijk, a colossal figure in a defence whose concession of just 15 goals in 28 games is the main reason Liverpool are where they are in the table. Here the world-beating rhetoric is not out of place. Athletic, intelligent, brave and commanding, Van Dijk can seem like the ideal centre back. Having to cope with a variety of partners from Joe Gomez to Dejan Lovren to Joel Matip has never fazed him.
Yet it’s striking that, Van Dijk and Salah apart, Liverpool have been short on really top quality individual contributions this season. City have, by comparison, seen huge campaigns by Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva with Kevin de Bruyne in inspired form since his return.
That Liverpool have still managed to keep their noses in front is an impressive indicator of their new resilience and obduracy. Those qualities were never more in evidence than during the game at Anfield against today’s opposition when they kept plugging away before the last minute winner by Divock Origi which sparked a run of 21 goals in six games that saw them pull clear as City hiccuped.
Such carnival stuff has been comparatively rare for Liverpool this season. Previously under Klopp they were regarded as an always exciting and often exhilarating outfit who perhaps lacked the rigour to successfully challenge for a title. This year they’ve proved adept at sneaking the kind of scrappy games popularly regarded as being key to league winning campaigns. The spark of last season’s European campaign has not always been there but Liverpool seem to have grown up as a team.
For all the suggestions that their chance may be gone, if the Reds win all their remaining games the title is theirs. They won’t win them all of course, but City won’t win all theirs either. Few expected the Reds would be in this position at this stage. That they’d do so while their big money outfield signings struggled would have seemed even more unlikely.
But here they are all the same. Whatever happens today their fate won’t be decided by one game, but by 10. Come here to me and I’ll let you in on a secret: The single defining moment is a media invention. Like Vitruvius’ myth about The Special in The Lego Movie, it’s a great, inspiring legend that we made up.
Leagues, like life, are more complicated than that.
Wishful thinking is a very poor basis for policy when it comes to planning football’s future
GAA president John Horan believes that what Gaelic football really needs is a two-tier championship. We may well get it, which is why it’s worth considering what such a competition would look like in reality. After all, lots of ideas look very promising in the abstract when it’s easy to put the best possible construction on them.
Right. Two tiers. How many in each? The logical number would be 16. A top tier of eight would be too small. A public not exactly filled with joy by three rounds of the Super 8 would be unlikely to welcome further meetings between the teams involved.
So it’s 16. But which 16? The fairest thing would presumably be to, having given the counties fair warning, divide them by league positions. The fact that seven of last year’s Super 8 qualifiers had played in Division One that year seems to imply a pretty direct correlation between league and championship performance.
That means a 2018 top tier would have included Clare, Tipperary, Fermanagh and Cork. Now one of the justifications for a two-tier championship is that it’s unfair to lesser counties to make them endure hammerings at the hands of the game’s elite. So we have a problem straight away.
Clare lost by 22 points to Kerry in last year’s championship, Cork lost to the Kingdom by 17 points and to Tyrone by 16. Fermanagh shipped double figure beatings by Donegal and Kildare. Even Roscommon, who made the Super 8, lost to Tyrone by 18 points and to Dublin by 14.
All of those games were of the kind which prompt two tier advocates to observe that the losers would be better off playing against more evenly matched opposition. Yet all of them involved teams who’d be in a putative top flight.
The sad truth is that there are not two discernible tiers. There are at the most five teams who could avoid disgrace at the hands of either Dublin or a Kerry team with its act together. There are perhaps half a dozen who’d be hammered by most counties in the top half. The problem is that there isn’t a lot to choose between numbers 8 to 24.
For example, Carlow are one of those small teams who are always told that playing in the second tier would be in their best interest. Yet last year they beat Kildare, who later reached the Super 8, by seven points in the championship. Longford, who’d conform even more to the popular idea of a tier two county, knocked Meath out of the Leinster championship and in the last decade have scored championship wins over Monaghan, Mayo and Derry — when Derry were good. They’d be denied the opportunity of repeating such shocks in a two-tier system.
The problem with new systems is that they have to deal with the concrete reality of things. A resurgent Cork team, for example, were mentioned as probable qualifiers for the Super 8 at the start of last season. But there was no such Cork team and chances are the Rebels will be in Division 3 next season. Down are in the third flight now and Derry in the fourth, yet I suspect both teams may well figure in the platonic top tier Horan has in his head. They might not be strong counties but they seem like strong counties in a way that Clare, Fermanagh and Tipperary don’t.
Wishful thinking is a poor basis for policy. Croke Park told us last year that the Super 8 had partly been created to address the problem of falling championship attendances. We then saw probably the greatest percentage drop in attendances in football history. The vibrant public imagination capturing new format envisaged by its creators didn’t correspond to reality. An organisation which presided over a disaster like that should be less bullish about future brainwaves.
That excellent Leitrim player Emlyn Mulligan came out in favour of a two tier system last week and you can see how it would benefit his county and others mired near the bottom of the rankings who’ve taken some horrendous beatings over the years. But another problem with tier two is that it would quickly become a forgotten competition.
Look at last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup. It was thrilling and competitive all the way but RTÉ television coverage was practically nil and newspapers didn’t do much better. There’s no point in the GAA saying that this wouldn’t happen with Tommy Murphy Cup Mark Two. They have no say in it. We in the media do and I’m afraid the summer is a busy time and games between London and Leitrim or Wicklow and Antrim will be very low priority if they have no bearing on the main championship.
If the GAA top brass want this two tier championship they’ll probably get it. But they might be better off addressing more important issues, such as making Gaelic football more attractive so one third of its audience doesn’t disappear in a single year. Or addressing the concerns of club players who suspect Croke Park regards them as a kind of large and inconvenient leper colony.
The gift of joy that sport gives is timeless
I’m looking at a fine old Omega pocket watch once owned by my grandfather Ned Sweeney of St Francis Terrace, Kilkenny who passed it on to my father.
There are a couple of marks on the face apparently incurred when he jumped for joy at a goal scored by Kilkenny against Waterford in the 1963 All-Ireland hurling final and the watch went flying.
Every time I see them it’s a reminder of the great wild joy sport can give us.
Some day that watch will go to my daughters. One of them was in a state of delight on Wednesday afternoon. She’d been playing for the first year basketball team in Skibbereen Community School and they’d won. After three losses it was her first victory in competitive team sport. Watching her delight I remembered just how it feels to win at that age.
As she talked about the game I caught sight of the watch on the table and was struck by the connection between her joy and that of the man who died the year before I was born and hopped that watch off the Croke Park ground. The years go by, the teams change, the sports change, the country changes but something essential remains the same.
Whatever match you’re watching or playing today I wish you the height of joy. Because in a world where the news often doesn’t give much cheer the man or woman who loves sport is a lucky soul.
* * * * *
It seems neighbourly to keep an eye on what’s happening in Polish sport. At the moment it looks like the Ekstraklasa league might provide one of the great romantic football stories of the year. Legia Warsaw are the richest club in the country, have won five of the last six league titles and were hot favourites to make it four in a row.
However, with 14 games left they find themselves seven points behind Lechia Gdansk. Lechia are the most unlikely of title contenders. The club has never won a league title and last season only avoided relegation by three points. Manager Piotr Stokowiec only took over this time last year as they fought to stay up. Go Lechia.
* * * * *
One of the gutsiest performances I’ve seen in an Irish jersey was that of Megan Campbell in the women’s under 17 team’s 2-1 defeat by Japan in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final.
It’s been no surprise to see the Drogheda woman enjoy an impressive senior career, the highlight being her performance in the 2017 FA Cup final when she set up two of Manchester City’s goals against Birmingham City.
The following November Campbell suffered a cruciate ligament injury in a Champions League match. Since then she’s endured a nightmare 15-month lay-off but is now back in the City squad and last week was named in the Irish panel for two forthcoming friendlies against Wales.
It’s great to see her back.
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