Tuesday 17 September 2019

Jamie Carragher: 'Title race is now about mind games - and Reds have edge'

City could struggle to pick themselves up from devastating Champions League loss

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA

Jamie Carragher

The Premier League title race has ceased to be solely about ability. Now it is primarily about the psychology of Manchester City and Liverpool. One club are buzzing, preparing for a Champions League semi-final, trying to feed off their winning momentum. The other are fighting against the prospect of a demoralising European setback having domestic repercussions.

Assessing the mood of the clubs in midweek, you would not have believed it was City who had already won one trophy this year, reached the final of another competition and remain favourites to win the Premier League.

Liverpool crave their first trophy of the Jurgen Klopp era, yet this week feels particularly crucial for Pep Guardiola.

Last week, Liverpool beat Chelsea and there were triumphant scenes inside Anfield. Five years ago, they ended a fixture against the same opponents in the same position - needing City to lose or draw one of their remaining few games - yet the picture was one of desolation.

The difference comes from the impetus of results and the belief that by maintaining an extraordinary winning run the pressure will tell and the prize will come. City have been fighting against this idea of destiny being in Liverpool's favour for months and are yet to offer any hint they will drop another point.

Not in the Premier League, at least. Europe has given the title race a subplot. The sight of Guardiola sinking to his knees after the video assistant referee ruled out Raheem Sterling's injury-time goal against Tottenham Hotspur might become the lingering image of this season. The Champions League means so much to Guardiola and his players. He knows his side had the talent to win it, as they did last season.

Publicly

No matter what was said publicly, the quadruple and its historic significance was a realistic ambition. The Champions League is the competition he was brought to City to win. Guardiola has been unable to do so and it will hurt.

What makes it worse is that the challenge was overcoming Barcelona and Real Madrid, but in the past three seasons teams they expected to beat - Monaco, Liverpool and Spurs - knocked them out.

City face Tottenham again today, an immediate and unwanted reminder of their harrowing experience in what was probably the most dramatic football match I have ever seen in England.

There are those who believe City's disappointment will inspire them to the title. That may prove the case as they protect their advantage, but the quarter-final loss was a hindrance, not a help. There was no blessing in disguise at the Etihad on Wednesday night. Guardiola's reaction said it all.

History was in sight for his team, but it was denied them in the cruellest circumstances.

That will inevitably have taken its toll when the players reported to training on Thursday, demanding Guardiola and his back-room staff to be at their most inspirational to get into the minds of his players and remind them what they have achieved and what is still at stake.

If they are able to shrug off their despair to collect maximum points from their remaining five Premier League fixtures it will be even more impressive than dealing with whatever congestion a two-legged semi-final against Ajax brought.

Facing Ajax would have made no difference to performance levels against Leicester City and Brighton, the fixtures that would have been most affected by the additional workload.

My feeling throughout the run-in is that it is City's next three games before the semi-finals kick-off - Spurs, Manchester United and Burnley - which will determine if they retain the title.

Similarly, Liverpool's success has brought problems for Klopp that he would have welcomed when this season began, but which now present him with unenviable decisions. Tomorrow's trip to Cardiff City has assumed the status of Liverpool's biggest league game of the season because a victory would ensure City must win at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Liverpool have already suffered one setback. When Uefa decided Liverpool would play their first leg against Barcelona on Wednesday, May 1, this made life more difficult for Klopp. Now his side must play Barcelona twice and travel to Newcastle in the space of six days.

The question of which tournament to prioritise has been shrugged off until now. Can Klopp really expect all his front three to perform at their maximum in the Nou Camp and then again four days later at St James' Park?

If City drop points in their next two games and Liverpool beat Cardiff and Huddersfield, I would argue the trip to Newcastle is more important than Barcelona.

Publicly

I would not criticise Klopp if he left out one of his front three in the first leg to ensure they were ready in the North East. That would be a brave call, but the Premier League is everything to Liverpool fans, while the Champions League is a brilliant opportunity to make the season memorable even if the title eludes them. If, however, City beat Spurs, United and Burnley, Klopp must assume the Champions League offers the most likely route to glory.

This all ensures the most exciting conclusion to a title race since Sergio Aguero's winning goal in injury time against Queens Park Rangers in 2012.

These campaigns come along occasionally, such as when Manchester United went head-to-head with Arsenal when Arsene Wenger was at his peak, Blackburn Rovers squeezing across the line in 1995 and Michael Thomas winning the title with the last kick of the 1989 season.

They are so infrequent that we cherish them more, and yet we have still not had a moment in the Premier League campaign to rival the drama in midweek. Such is the quality of the teams, the stress they are putting each other under to maintain their highest level every week, you cannot avoid the feeling we are heading towards another unforgettable climax.

The consistency of both teams is staggering. City have won 183 points from their past 71 league games. It is an unreal level of consistency.

We are blessed to be observing these coaches at work. Mauricio Pochettino is worthy of similar accolades at Spurs. Guardiola will be remembered as one of the greatest managers of all time, but there is not a single Liverpool fan who would swap him for Klopp, the modern embodiment of what everyone on the Kop craves from their coach: pure emotion, an engaging personality that connects with the working-class fan base, always on the attack.

The more City and Liverpool have to gain in the next few weeks, the more they become aware of how much they might lose. We have no need to keep saying how good they are. This is the ultimate test of mental endurance.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Remaining games

Liverpool Pts 85. GD: +57

Tomorrow: Cardiff City (a)

April 26: Huddersfield Town (h)

May 5: Newcastle United (a)

May 12: Wolves (h)

Man City Pts 83. GD: +64

Today: Tottenham (h)

April 24: Manchester United (a)

April 28: Burnley (a)

May 4: Leicester City (h)

May 12: Brighton (a)

Telegraph.co.uk

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