Monday 27 January 2020

Devil in the details for title contenders

As vital as tomorrow night's clash between Manchester's finest is, titles are won or lost over many months, writes Dion Fanning

In Manchester, they may think there is one game which will decide the title but whoever loses out will find regret in a million places. The league championship that appears to be decided by one game between two rivals creates a certain type of torture. Alex Ferguson says it is for masochists but the disappointments of tomorrow night will also provoke a punishing assessment of every mistake across the season.



United and City are close, close enough that every goal they score and every chance they squander can mean something.

Last week, Roberto Mancini seethed on the bench when City missed chances against Wolves. Niall Quinn was at the ground, working for Sky and he remembered something similar more than 20 years ago.

In 1989, Arsenal went into the last game of the season needing to beat Liverpool by two goals at Anfield to win the league, not on goal difference but on goals scored. The game was now a one-off but, unlike a cup final, an exhausting season where every game counted had taken them to that point.

When Quinn remembers that night, he thinks of a game months before when Arsenal's Perry Groves had attempted to show off in front of goal and missed a chance when a simple finish was required.

In the dressing room afterwards, George Graham sought Groves out. "George said to him that if the title was lost on goal difference, he'd make sure Perry was never heard of again," Quinn remembers. The title was won on even less than goal difference -- Arsenal had scored eight more goals -- but for Groves' sake, his side came out ahead.

Quinn's recollection of those days is how relaxed Arsenal were. Graham, he says, resembled Roberto Mancini, telling the world the league was over, that Arsenal's chance had gone.

The game in 1989 was delayed to the end of May because of the tragedy at Hillsborough. Liverpool's players and management went through the most intense experience of their lives as they attended funerals and talked with grieving families.

When they returned to football, the matches stretched on into the distance with the game against Arsenal the final match of the season and the chance to do the double.

Liverpool had won the FA Cup on an emotional day against Everton and were chasing a second double. Arsenal had faltered in the run-up, losing at home to Derby and then drawing at Highbury against Wimbledon when Dubliner Paul McGee scored.

McGee shared a house with Vinnie Jones and he told the Kilkenny People in 2006 that he went out for a few beers with Jones the night before the game. Wimbledon were even more relaxed than Arsenal, even if the idea has taken hold, mainly thanks to Tony Adams' book, that they spent the days before the Anfield game on a bender.

Arsenal had nine days between the Wimbledon and Liverpool games and Quinn's recollection of the build-up is different, but one thing was constant: George Graham's calm.

Arsenal didn't travel to Liverpool until the day of the game, having an afternoon nap in a Liverpool hotel, before heading to Anfield.

Graham again talked everything down, sensing that it was better if his side were calm rather than excitable. "He told us the worst thing we could do would be to score too early and not to worry if it was 0-0 at half-time." Quinn still laughs at the assurance of the manager.

It is a theme that is common in these games: it is too late to be guessing if players or a manager can be relied upon. Those who have shown they can be trusted have made themselves known by now.

When these games come around, the flaws players have detected in their team-mates become apparent to all. John Giles was part of the Leeds team that won its first title at Anfield in 1969. He loved those games, loved them because he knew he had a team to be trusted.

Liverpool had won two titles in the previous five years, an FA Cup and reached a European Cup semi-final. Leeds had never won the league, although they had won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup the previous year. Giles felt their lack of title-winning experience was completely irrelevant. Yet Leeds were building towards those moments, finishing second twice in the previous four seasons.

There were more important factors which Giles puts into a modern context. "We didn't have a Balotelli," he says, recalling that great team.

Leeds got the point they needed but Manchester City realistically need a win and they also have Balotelli available again.

Mancini will have to make these decisions, even if the side's return to form has appeared to come thanks to three factors: the return of Carlos Tevez, the suspension of Balotelli and the sense that the jig was up and the pressure was off.

In 1992, Manchester United were close to their first title in 25 years. With seven games to go, they were a point clear of Leeds United with two games in hand. Leeds had crashed and just when they thought they had hit bottom, they went to Maine Road and lost 4-0 to Manchester City.

Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson remembers wondering what he could do. "I spent the last 20 minutes of the game thinking how was I going to resurrect the season," he said last week.

Leeds, like City, felt the title was slipping away but Wilkinson hesitates when asked if the pressure being off helped his side. "You could say that," he reluctantly agrees.

"I think after 40 years Manchester City can now play for the title. We don't have pressure because we have nothing to lose," Mancini said yesterday, but whether they can still play without pressure is open to question.

Wilkinson's methods were often criticised and he had his own idiosyncratic approach.

"I had my own ratings system for the players and I was able to look back and see who had scored the most points and what was the best combination with other players."

On the Monday after the defeat to Manchester City, Wilkinson told his players that they would have to win four of their last five matches. He says he told them they could afford a draw at Liverpool. Leeds drew 0-0 at Liverpool and won their other four matches.

The two sides didn't meet in those final games but Wilkinson believed that if Liverpool had to beat United to stop them winning the title that year, they would do it. For the final games, he decided he would make no changes to the team, barring injury. They would recover their momentum that way. "Players respond if you've got a plan, it's always better if you've got a plan."

United didn't just lose at Liverpool, they lost at home to Nottingham Forest and at West Ham.

These days, Manchester United, Wilkinson says, have players and a manager who have "all the ingredients" to go on and win the title.

"We expect our players to come up to the mark on Monday and make sure we are offering threats to City," Ferguson said last week and he will believe he can rely on them. Wilkinson is another who doesn't see much value in having won the title before. "I think it helps but it's not the most important factor."

He says he can see United playing not to lose but says this is different than playing for a point.

City need victory but the history of Manchester United tells them even that might not be enough. Four years ago, Manchester United travelled to Stamford Bridge, three points clear of Chelsea. United, with a much superior goal difference, had more room for manoeuvre and also had their eye on a different prize -- a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona the following Tuesday.

"We deserved to win the game. They knew that one point would secure the championship," Avram Grant, then Chelsea's manager working miracles, said afterwards. Victory was still not enough. Chelsea stumbled away at Newcastle and United won the title by two points.

United do not have the protection of goal difference this time. They also have no distractions -- Ronaldo was left out for that game but Ferguson will go with the players he trusts.

Last season they beat Chelsea at Old Trafford when their opponents arrived needing a win to go level. A United defeat the week before at Arsenal had given Carlo Ancelotti's side some hope, but soon it was extinguished.

Ferguson's belief that Manchester United can always win might be their greatest asset. He shared that with Shankly, who went into the 1969 game believing Liverpool would win the title. When Leeds were being applauded by the Kop having clinched the championship with the point they needed, he probably still believed something could be done.

Shankly walked into the dressing room afterwards and told the Leeds players, "the best team drew." Alex Ferguson shares Shankly's optimism that his teams will never be defeated but a United victory at the Etihad tomorrow is unlikely to be received by the home crowd in the same manner. When Arsenal won at Anfield, Liverpool's Ronnie Moran came into the champions' dressing room with a crate of champagne.

Wilkinson believes the game could be decided by a decision. Giles thinks City's resurgence with Carlos Tevez in the side is not a coincidence. Quinn looks for calmness in the teams.

On the way to Anfield, Graham told Quinn he wouldn't be involved. There was no room on the bench for him or some of the other squad players, among them Brian Marwood, now a Manchester City executive, who sat behind the goal where Michael Thomas would win the league for Arsenal.

During the game, Bruce Grobbelaar would turn around and joke with them when the ball was at the other end, although with Grobbelaar the ball didn't always have to be at the other end.

If Balotelli is involved tomorrow night, there will be even greater unpredictability. In the autumn, he was a folk hero, hailed for his unpredictability and his comic value. Now that City are close, they require something else.

It may be too late to find it now. These games, and these titles, have always been decided on traditional values.

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