Saturday 20 July 2019

Paul Hayward: 'Liverpool and Man City title race is the best the Premier League has ever seen for pure footballing quality'

There has been no more appealing collision between two title chasers. We can only hope both City and Liverpool maintain the pace until May

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk concedes a penalty as he brings down Manchester City's Leroy Sane at Anfield earlier this season. Photo: David Blunsden/Action Plus via Getty Images
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk concedes a penalty as he brings down Manchester City's Leroy Sane at Anfield earlier this season. Photo: David Blunsden/Action Plus via Getty Images

Paul Hayward

The Premier League began its quest for world domination with title races between Manchester United, Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest. Then Arsenal became United's antagonist before Chelsea took over on London's behalf and sovereign wealth put Manchester City in the picture.

In that sweep of history from the year zero of the Premier League breakaway, there have been captivating two-club fights between great sides comprised of silk and steel. But none has surpassed the pure footballing quality of this season's chariot race between Manchester City and Liverpool, which thunders into the Etihad Stadium tomorrow beautifully poised between swinging Liverpool's way irreversibly and reviving City's hopes of defending their title.

Seriously, there has never been a top-of-the-table game like this in January, between one side on the up and another clinging to power; between two symphonic styles, equal in positivity and bravery but different in application.

No more are Liverpool the gegenpressing team we thought Jurgen Klopp was building. The league leaders are so good they no longer need to hound and hassle their opponents continually.

Klopp's men can now dominate games in all sectors of the pitch, including their own final third.

With Virgil van Dijk in central defence and Alisson Becker in goal, the need to camp on the halfway line and press the opposition flat has lapsed.

In the full-back positions, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold link speedily and elegantly along the flanks, but also do their shift in a back four that has conceded eight goals in 20 games.


This evolution from single-theory side to team with many strategies has produced a line-up of strength and beauty in which an attacking trident is enabled by an impenetrable back line and an over-achieving central midfield.

If all boats rise on a rising tide, Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have been lifted to the height of their abilities by the superb football all around them.

The other lot are not bad either: City, who made their own evolutionary jump in 2018, adding passes on top of passes until their movement of the ball left opponents feeling they were on a Waltzer.

Pep Guardiola's shock and awe approach of relentless and artistic use of the ball produced the first 100-point season in Premier League history and left us wondering whether there was a weakness that had not yet revealed itself.

Well, Christmas revealed it. Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Leicester City revealed it, with three wins from four City fixtures, which turned a January 3 game into something approaching a title-race eliminator.

To win the championship for the first time in 29 years, Liverpool need only to stay as mighty as they have been since August (no small task). City need to regain their unplayability, win tomorrow and hope vertigo, the Champions League or the gods suck some of the life out of Liverpool for a week or two.

Whatever happens, there has been no more appealing collision between two title chasers. No disrespect to the great Manchester United and Arsenal teams is intended.

The Alex Ferguson-Arsene Wenger duel was eternally magnificent. Individual talent, mental toughness and flying food left us wide-eyed at the intensity of it.

Their rivalry sold the Premier League as club football's excitement HQ. But the game has shifted again since then, with new personalities, fresh ideas.

Manchester City against Liverpool - here, now - is a polarity to compete with the world's best, including Spain's El Clasico, at a time when Tottenham are also capable of making the senses tingle.

The last time Liverpool won the league, Wimbledon, Coventry City and Luton Town were in the top flight. United finished 13th, with City one place further back.

Fans of the other 90 clubs accuse the media of obsessing over a Liverpool rebirth, of "wanting" them to be champions in May. But with usual declarations of neutrality duly posted, who would veto the storyline of the club of the Seventies and Eighties returning to the pinnacle with such invigorating football - marshaled by a manager with a touch of Bill Shankly's spirituality?

There have been title-race humdingers in March and April before, and last-day classics ("Aguero-oooooo"), but not, I reckon, a convergence with 18 games remaining between two sides capable of destroying even good opposition, led by two innovators, each representing a bigger "cause".

The memory recalls Arsenal pipping United in the title race in 2002 with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford, and Ferguson saying: "I don't begrudge them their share of honours because they play the game the right way."

The same spirit abides now.

That was May. This is January. And nobody outside of Liverpool wants it settled yet.

A 10-point lead for Klopp with 17 games left would require a collapse of Crisp or Devon Loch proportions (Anfield's proximity to Aintree offers many analogies).

We want more than 21 games from two sides who can send out Mohamed Salah and Sergio Aguero, the Silvas, David and Bernardo, Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Van Dijk, Roberto Firmino and two stellar Brazilian goalkeepers.

We want a blockbuster at the Etihad, but not 2019 to peak three days in.

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