Tuesday 22 October 2019

Chris Bascombe: 'Where this hysterical title race will be won and lost'

The five issues that will decide whether Man City or Liverpool fans will be celebrating come May

Manchester City’s Leroy Sane battles it out with Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. Photo: Getty Images
Manchester City’s Leroy Sane battles it out with Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. Photo: Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

THE FIXTURE COMPARISON

This has been the longest run-in since Red Rum caught Crisp in the Aintree Grand National. The title predictors have been having a carnival since January.

What has made the season so charming and unpredictable is how foolish the amateur fortune tellers have looked. Manchester City lost to Newcastle.

Liverpool were unable to beat West Ham. Danilo was outstanding rather than the weak link against Mohamed Salah.

It means anyone looking at the last nine games and stating unequivocally that Burnley, Fulham and Cardiff ought not to bother turning up for their meetings with City and Liverpool has not been paying enough attention.

Within their remaining schedules, there is a three-match spell for both clubs which - based on form and league position - looks a bit of a minefield. Liverpool face Spurs, Southampton and Chelsea in successive fixtures. City have Crystal Palace away, then Spurs and Manchester United.

City must also deal with FA Cup and Champions League commitments, Liverpool the Champions League.

Whoever is top at the end of their most demanding period can be stated - unequivocally - to have the title to lose.

PSYCHOLOGICAL STRAIN

One way or another, a record is going to tumble. No club have collected 90 points and failed to win the title. That is the dubious honour to be bestowed on the soon-to-be runners-up - or to give them the 2018-19 season's most intellectually vacuous description, "bottlers".

That is why we are heading towards the climax of not only the most exciting, highest-quality title race in English football history, but also the most hysterical. City and Liverpool have only themselves to blame for being so darn good.

For prolonged periods, no one thought it possible they could draw, let alone lose, so every negative result has provoked mania, accompanied by premature declarations. City clearly have a slight psychological advantage having been there, won it, and had the T-shirts printed for their legions of back-room staff.

Their supporters seem calmer about the outcome and, understandably, they have sought to up the pressure on their rivals by not unreasonably identifying that Liverpool fans want it so much the desperation can be debilitating.

The faces on the Kop have been somewhat unfairly depicted as resembling that of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, knows this and has sought to steer Anfield's yearning into more positive energy. Liverpool have not lost at home in the league for almost two years, so there is more evidence than not that it is working. The real moments of truth are now upon us.

STRENGTH IN DEPTH

If this was the most decisive criteria, City would already be planning their victory parade. They obviously have the best squad and have needed it to cope with a succession of injuries to key players such as Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne. This will become more important as City make progress in two cup competitions.

Liverpool have some quality on their bench, although a search party needs to be recruited to re-establish the whereabouts of Xherdan Shaqiri. Naby Keita has been inconsistent and Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge have lacked a run of games to enable them to resemble the players they were.

With question marks about the quality of Liverpool's backup, there remains a school of thought that it would be more helpful for Klopp to go out of the Champions League against Bayern Munich. Admittedly, it is a school with a suspicious Ofsted rating, but nevertheless the view persists. Gary Neville was shot down as far back as September when making the point that Europe can be a distraction. Contrary to misinterpretation, it was not a spiteful argument.

Liverpool's European games against Manchester City and Roma a year ago were physically and emotionally draining, which is why there was so much rotation and points were dropped in the following league games. Liverpool could not beat West Brom and Stoke and only just held on to fourth place.

Naturally, there is no way Klopp will sacrifice anything. The thought of it is preposterous. If City push on as front runners, European glory might yet become Liverpool's best chance to win a trophy. Nevertheless, of the two managers, Pep Guardiola is in a stronger position to rest players without risking a significant drop in quality.

THE MANCHESTER DERBY

There is no escaping it. Providing Liverpool keep on winning, the Manchester derby will be one of the strangest and most influential of all time, with so many sub-plots in one game that newspapers may need several supplements to cover all the angles.

City going for the title; United in need of points to qualify for the Champions League; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seeking to confirm his permanent residence; Liverpool looking on in the rare position of supporting their hated rivals; Manchester airport eyeing a bonanza from the legions of Far East, Australian and expat Liverpool fans who would descend upon the North West to experience Klopp's title winning party.

No matter how intolerable the proposition, United will never compromise their own ambitions - namely, ensuring they remain part of the European elite - just because it will help Liverpool. Thursdays in the Europa League are too unbearable a prospect for Solskjaer and his squad.

So, as things stand, Klopp can expect City to face the same hostility and intensity at Old Trafford as his side just over a week ago, as well as at Goodison Park on Sunday. Liverpool know they have to negotiate a 38-game season to win this title, every fixture intense. It would be reassuring to know City face the same.

HOW IS YOUR LUCK?

For all the tactical analysis, forensic examinations of fixtures and squads and weekly psychobabble, when the difference between two title-chasing sides is so slender, often it just comes down to a lucky bounce of the ball.

The history of this season will be written by the winners, but previous experience tells us how small the details are when runners are neck-and-neck heading into the final bend. Would City have been able to mount their extraordinary fightback in 2012 had Queens Park Rangers midfielder Joey Barton not acted like an idiot and collected a red card?

Similarly, there is a reason Demba Ba's name continues to be chanted with such glee by Liverpool's opponents. No one could have imagined how Liverpool's dream would die with Ba's goal for Chelsea in 2014, gift-wrapping City the trophy. Go further back and there is the freakish performance by West Ham goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko denying United another title in 1995, and Michael Thomas ending Anfield's chase for second Double with the last kick of the 1989 season.

An unlikely hero will emerge for City or Liverpool, and they are as likely to be playing for Burnley, Leicester, Brighton or Wolves in those final hours of the season. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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