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Paul Hayward: 'Masterclass in intensity ensures showtime finale to title race will be box-office'

 

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Fernandinho embodied the ability some players have to combine high concentration with physical commitment and accuracy. Photo: Getty

Fernandinho embodied the ability some players have to combine high concentration with physical commitment and accuracy. Photo: Getty

AFP/Getty Images

Fernandinho embodied the ability some players have to combine high concentration with physical commitment and accuracy. Photo: Getty

Jurgen Klopp said he would have "paid a lot of money" to be where Liverpool are now - four points clear with 17 games left. The big bucks fans will pay to watch the rest of this engrossing title race will be well spent.

Liverpool retain a healthy lead but are catchable. Manchester City dipped in December but came thundering back with a victory built on substance as much as style. The intensity of Thursday night's game left neutrals marvelling at the commitment of both teams, Spurs fans claiming their side were being snobbishly overlooked, and Manchester United realising how far they still have to go, even after four straight wins under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

A lot changed over Christmas, as Jose Mourinho was left chewing his fist over United's rejuvenation. Managerial talent, we see, is marooned unless players have faith in the leader and fight for him/her, inspired by a common urge. When it works - and it worked at the Etihad - a manager's personality is spread across a field by proxy.

Stowaways There were no stowaways on City's pitch and nobody held back. Even the most skilful foreign players (Bernardo Silva et al) relished being in a battle that was psychological as much as technical. In the eye of the gale, City's Fernandinho embodied the ability some players have to combine high concentration with physical commitment and accuracy. His long passes to Raheem Sterling on the right were a masterclass in penetrative redistribution.

Reductively, we talk of City and Liverpool as teams who move the ball beautifully and finish with aplomb. There is a lot more to it, as the last game of the Christmas schedule demonstrated. At stake was the Premier League power balance and the likely destination of the title in May. With their hundred-point campaign (2017-'18) and sumptuous start, City needed a challenge to stop this season becoming a lap of honour. Liverpool have supplied it, with a better back-line, more clean sheets, fewer defeats and miraculous recruitment: Alisson and Virgil van Dijk for the price of one Philippe Coutinho.

Aggrieved by Anthony Taylor's refusal to send off Vincent Kompany for a flying tackle on Mohamed Salah, Liverpool are in no mood to celebrate the entertainment value of the match. But three points and an unbeaten record aside, they lost nothing in defeat. That sounds crazy, admittedly, but could anyone seriously think less of Liverpool as a team because they were edged out away from home in a classic Premier League duel?

Followers of the other 14 top-flight clubs will feel more deeply than ever that a mini-league is forming at the top. United's malaise has been halted by them returning to what they always were: an optimistic attacking force. The two top-six sides with the weakest defences are in fifth and sixth positions - Arsenal and Manchester United - and neither can expect to challenge at the top until they rectify those purchasing errors.

But each are sufficiently dangerous going forward to contribute to a final four months of the season packed with potential upsets and twists. Even Chelsea, in fourth, are only six points behind City, for whom Leroy Sane came of age against Liverpool. Sane's progression from decorative to domineering is a sight to treasure. Similarly apparent was Trent Alexander-Arnold's boldness once he escaped his own half after the interval. Here is a young English full-back who sees a test and heads straight for it, with innate confidence in his own ability.

With the Christmas endurance test over, the usual calculations apply: how players react and recover, how the managers treat FA Cup games, whether the Champions League distracts the mind. Klopp has the greater challenge here because Pep Guardiola has won a Premier League title and has more battle-hardened players. The weight of history is more intense for Liverpool, who fell off the summit 29 years ago and have not been back.

Diminished In the post-match press conference, Klopp was flooded with adrenalin as his words tumbled over each other, but he was perfectly "clear", as politicians insist on saying. Liverpool were neither diminished nor discouraged by their defeat, and picked up a useful grievance that can be used as fuel. Kompany's challenge on Salah lacked the legal element of "control" and, therefore, qualified as a red-card offence. Injustice has its uses, except where players go into a sulk.

Whatever prompted Susanna Dinnage to backtrack on the Premier League CEO job, it was not the quality of the entertainment she was being asked to sell. While 14 clubs consolidate, struggle, survive, six offer showtime from now until May. Man City 2 Liverpool 1 saved the box-office. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk