Saturday 25 May 2019

Hundreds of goals, almost 200 points and it could come down to one chance

Whoever wins title will deserve their triumph but if this week has taught us anything, it's that it all can change in a single moment

No holding back: James Milner challenges Sadio Mane during Liverpool training at Melwood. Photo: Getty
No holding back: James Milner challenges Sadio Mane during Liverpool training at Melwood. Photo: Getty

Miguel Delaney

On the morning after Vincent Kompany's vital goal against Leicester City, Jurgen Klopp gathered his Liverpool squad together for a meeting ahead of their Champions League showdown with Barcelona, and opened with one question. "Anyone want to talk about last night?" the German asked in their Hope Street Hotel base. There were only determined shakes of the head.

"No? Good," Klopp went on, before imploring his team to do the same. "We fight again."

There was a similar scene with the Manchester City squad the next day, albeit in response to Liverpool's latest feat for the ages. Pep Guardiola knew he barely had to ask the question. Many of the City players were naturally excited by what they'd seen on TV at Anfield, but it didn't really affect their confidence, or make them feel their main challengers are fated for something grander yet.

They've never really been concerned by what Liverpool are doing. The champions have their own sense of destiny, especially after the manner of Monday's winner and so much else.

The dramatic events at the start of the week thereby offered the most epic events football can, but also a fitting reflection of the entire league season, as it builds towards this climax.

One of these two sides offered a supreme display of excellence, only for the other to respond with their own, and so on. And on. And on.

Both are just too good. Both are just too focused on the prize.

So, now, is everything else. This is where it stops.

This is what everything is built up to, the "Premier League final", as both managers are now calling it.

It is really the only way a title race of such unprecedented quality and relentlessness could rightfully be settled, by going right to the end with a gloriously rare final day that decides it all.

This is just the eighth time the title race has gone to the last weekend in the Premier League era, and the first in five years. That leaves open the possibility of an even rarer moment, where one single kick might decide the destination of the trophy. The match-winner that is also the title-winner.

Discounting favours done elsewhere or strikes in games of multiple scorers, there have arguably only been seven such moments in Premier League history, and only two on the very last day - where a single strike definitively settled it all.

The last one was probably the greatest moment in City's history, as Sergio Aguero gave their supporters something so stupendous to drink in in the final seconds of the 2011-12 season.

Klopp has actually spent a lot of this season arguing you can't bring a competition that involves 38 connected matches down to any single moment, stating a few weeks ago that "clever people will say if you had beaten Leicester City you would have been champions, but it's all b******t".

Not completely. Klopp is only partly right, as this weekend will pretty much prove.

What really elevates a league beyond any other type of competition as a test of who is actually the best, is that it examines so many different elements of a squad, from long-term consistency to short-term nerve and overall quality.

The maths of so many matches erode the importance of single moments and thereby the effect of luck. You generally don't get fortunate champions, only deserving ones. Few will have been as deserving as this season's.

It is also what elevates a league as a competition, because it is the accumulation of so many inter-dependent moments and matches; a grand campaign - exactly what Klopp is alluding to.

A late goal in May is sometimes only important because of an early win in August. Divock Origi's winner against Newcastle United only mattered because of Mo Salah's against Brighton and Hove Albion. The same with Kompany's against Leicester and Kyle Walker's against Newcastle.

It is that same accumulation of moments that also fosters this accumulation of tension as the season goes on, however, and an increased demand to get the job done on any given day. You'll gradually run out of chances to rectify any mistakes, something only amplified by the historic lack of mistakes that both Liverpool and City have made.

It is going to be something of a cruel irony for the eventual runners-up, and such a satisfying vindication for the champions, that the near-flawless nature of their seasons will only accentuate the rare flaws. That is the great swing when the margins are so thin.

There have actually only been four distinctive stages when the initiative of the title race - when one team definitively knew winning all their games would guarantee them the title - changed hands.

They were the third set of fixtures, when City drew 1-1 at Wolves to fall behind; the 11th set, when Liverpool drew 1-1 at Arsenal to fall behind; the 16th, when City lost 2-0 at Chelsea; and the 29th, when Liverpool drew 0-0 at Everton.

Liverpool may well have the multifaceted misery of that goalline call against City mathematically costing them a centurion and invincible season; the nervous spring slump costing them a potential seven-point lead; and their great neighbours and rivals costing them first place for the last time.

On the other hand, if Klopp's side do end up victorious, City will be left ruing more direct derailments. That is because it will require the intense pain of a final-day fall at Brighton and Hove Albion, that will ultimately go all the way back to Riyad Mahrez's late missed penalty against Liverpool in October.

It may be unfair when two teams are so unquenchable, but it's unavoidable. Such rare failures will always be the stand-out moments when most of the season has relentless victory.

For all that, and the lack of drama in the longer-term title race due to these long winning runs, that has changed in the last week.

The nature of Liverpool's late 3-2 win at Newcastle and manner of Kompany's strike against Leicester City were absolutely vintage run-in drama, from the tension of the timing, to the emotional release and fraught nature of it all.

Permutations

That sets the stage for tomorrow, where the permutations are exactingly simple. If City win at Brighton, they are champions. If they don't, Liverpool are presented with a historic opportunity.

The actual occasions, however, are likely to be anything but simple. Games set by such a rare coalescence of circumstances tend to have unique complications.

There is first of all that rarefied air of a warm last day, the heat of the sun raising the heat of every minute without a goal, and thereby the tension. They are more nervous days than cup finals, because they are neither standalone matches nor direct face-offs. There is too much else going on. Too much on it.

The accumulation of so many matches weighs on every second, and infuses every interaction. A miss isn't just a miss, but potentially a moment that renders everything before it meaningless.

That is the greater weight for Liverpool, because of their long wait. There is the deep desire that all that belief, all of that emotion, all of those moments, have to mean something.

It might at the very least mean that City have to go on a 14-game winning run, which would be the second longest in history, only after they themselves last season.

That may not be what Liverpool want, but it says an awful lot about this entire season.

Now it's down to someone to have the final say, to offer the moment it all comes down to; to give the desired meaning to one team's entire season.

This is what it has all built up to.

It's either the end of a 29-year wait, or the first successful title defence in a decade. It's either City or Liverpool. It's either do or die.

It's all on one day. Thousands of moments, hundreds of goals, almost 200 points, from 37 games so far each, building up to a single kick and one champion.

Brighton v Manchester City, Live, Sky Sports, tomorrow, 3.0
Liverpool v Wolves, Live, Sky Sports, tomorrow, 3.0

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