Guardiola must be a psychologist more than a coach this weekend, urging players to forget squandered chances and focus on the present
WHAT must we do to get rid of them? Won’t they please just go away?
Wherever they were watching Liverpool’s second string team beat Southampton on Tuesday to take the title race to the final day, these were the thoughts of Pep Guardiola and Manchester City’s players.
Guardiola’s observation about Jurgen Klopp’s side being a “pain in the a**” may prove the most perceptive, defining quote of the season. Since being 14 points clear of Liverpool in January, it has felt only a matter of time before Guardiola’s side shrugged off their challengers. Logically, they will complete their quest tomorrow against Aston Villa. Tactically and technically, City have nothing to worry about. If their game follows the usual pattern they will score early and win comfortably.
Guardiola knows it may not be so straightforward. He must be a psychologist more than a coach this weekend, urging his players to forget the recent squandered chances and to focus on the here and now. One more game, one more win, one more title – easier said than done in the circumstances
Sometimes – no matter how much you try – you cannot help that you are fighting destiny. There is no rational reason. It just happens when sportspeople get anxious approaching the finishing line. Arsenal and Bayern Munich felt that way against Manchester United in 1999, when the treble was secured with late penalty saves and last minute winners. The ‘name on the trophy’ syndrome has proven itself a powerful force in football.
Romantics are having a field day this week, seeing Kop legend Steven Gerrard as City’s last obstacle and wondering ‘is it meant to be for Liverpool?’ There is a major flaw with that view. Gerrard is not playing.
Villa’s players must secure a result and sadly for Klopp none of them are as good as their manager was. Gerrard will be determined to win for himself and Villa more than Liverpool. He knows he will be the target of the home fans’ stick and celebrations as a visible symbol of the title rival. That will be motivation enough.
Do I believe City will do it? Yes, because they are accustomed to this situation. Panic only sets in if a goal has not arrived before 70 minutes. It’s hard to envisage a re-run of QPR in 2012 because Guardiola’s style is more controlled and less frenetic.
You can understand why City fans will be concerned until that first goal comes, however, given there was as much chance of them winning a treble as Liverpool.
There must have been times when City felt everything was going against them; how they outplayed Real Madrid and lost, the pile-up of injured defenders and the many opportunities they have already missed to wrap up the Premier League.
Even accounting for the two games Liverpool had in hand when the gap was 14 points, City had the title in their grip at halfway. Looking at their fixture list from mid-January, it was hard to see where they were going to drop the 11 points they had. When City and Liverpool met in April, Guardiola’s was the better side and missed a chance to win the game in the final minute, Riyad Mahrez clipping over the crossbar.
“That was the title,” was the immediate thought of everyone watching.
Likewise at West Ham last weekend. Had Mahrez scored his late penalty, there was no coming back for Liverpool. City’s goal difference would have made it impossible to compete.
These moments may prove irrelevant in 48 hours. The more of them there are, the more it plays on the minds of players who would have hoped their work was effectively over at full-time in the London Stadium.
Comparisons have been drawn with the situation three-years-ago. City travelled to Brighton on the final day knowing a win guaranteed the title and Liverpool – as on Sunday – were at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The points difference is identical. So are Liverpool’s opponents. Everything else at Liverpool is different.
Klopp was still waiting for his first trophy as Liverpool’s manager in 2019. The club was still trying to end its three-decade wait to be English champions, too. As news filtered through of City easing to victory at the AMEX Stadium, there was deflation at Anfield. Everyone anticipated City would win. The reality still hurt. The prospect of a Champions League final a few weeks later was a consolation, but there were regrets. Liverpool had chances against City when the sides met the previous January, and only lost the lead after a couple of draws late in the season at Manchester United and Everton. Despite an extraordinary campaign, there was a sense of what might have been.
There will be no such demoralisation on Sunday. Liverpool have been the chasers throughout, never in a position to win this season’s title. Having just won two finals and in preparations for a third, anything more tomorrow is a spectacular bonus. A cup parade is confirmed no matter what and there will be a party atmosphere at Anfield as the fans look towards Paris.
City have it all to lose. This is their last chance to win a trophy this season. They go into the weekend with confidence and fear, the expectation being they will become champions tomorrow.
Liverpool’s remaining weapon is hope. The fact there is still a fight means anything is possible.
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