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Manchester City, Liverpool in breathless dash to title

by thesquadron.in
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“In the years that I have been involved in football, I never had a month so exciting like this with such important and exciting matches every three days.” Two-time Champions League winner Thiago Alcantara’s comment is as much about Liverpool as it is about the Premier League which resumes this weekend after the international break where World Cup fortunes were made or marred.

Should they notch up their 10th consecutive league win, in what will be Juergen Klopp’s 250th game in charge, Liverpool could lead the standings, if only for a while. It is a measure of how good Klopp’s team has been in a league that seemed Manchester City’s to lose in January when they were 14 points clear of competition. But that won’t be the only talking point between now and the end of May. Four, maybe six, teams are battling for two remaining top-four slots. And from Brentford to Burnley, there is the grim quest for survival. With games against Manchester United, West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City will need to believe in miracles to survive the drop.

It is not as good as 1995-96 when there were three in the fray for the title (Newcastle, Liverpool and United), five more in the mix for Europe berths and no club was doomed in the way Norwich seemingly are. It is not as good as 2013-14 either, when, as April came, four were fighting for the league and seven points separated the last nine in the standings.

Like Norwich, there has always been one team pegged firmly at the bottom since 2014-15 but at the top, close finishes have been rare in recent time—four of the last five seasons had none of the drama associated with Martin Tyler’s ‘Aguerooooo’ moment 93:20 minutes into City’s game against Queen’s Park Ranger in 2011-12. It wasn’t supposed to be this term too but as City faltered—draw at Southampton, loss at home to Tottenham and the goalless draw at Crystal Palace—Liverpool flourished. So assiduously have they chipped away at City’s lead that was nine points in February, six in March and is now one point going into Saturday’s game against Watford, that Pep Guardiola has called them, “a pain in the a**.”

From playing out from the back, choosing goalkeepers because they have good feet and winning trophies without a striker, Guardiola’s City, who travel to Burnley on Saturday, have set markers in football. “We’re an example of how to play nice football, to be superior in all areas,” said Aymeric Laporte in an interview to The Guardian.

And yet with relentless pressing, full-backs delivering assists, a midfield adept at retrieving the ball and a forward line that has been bolstered by the January signing of Luis Diaz, Liverpool have managed to keep abreast of City. In some aspects, such as conceding goals at home (7-10), winning points at home (36-34) and losing less at home (0-2), they have bettered City. And Liverpool have done it by spending net £220m less than City over the past five seasons. They are alive in three competitions and have won one.

City will meet only one top-six team in their remaining fixtures; Liverpool are still to play Spurs and United. There is also the emotional quotient of dealing with failed World Cup qualifying bids for Mo Salah and Diaz. But the one team in the top-six City have to play are Liverpool, at home on April 10. That is when the Premier League could see a decisive push for the title.

Their future uncertain, Chelsea look best placed to seal a top-four berth though they have to host Arsenal and travel to United. The revival project under Mikel Arteta is far from complete but green shoots have emerged at Arsenal. Spurs are improving under Antonio Conte and though no one’s sure what to expect of United, you can discount the star-studded roster only at your peril.

At the other end, saving Everton may not bolster manager Frank Lampard’s reputation but not being able to do that for the first time in 68 years could spoil it. Getting Leeds United to survive, without the injured Patrick Bamford, will help Jesse Marsch prove that some Americans know enough football to survive, maybe even thrive, in the country that invented the game.

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