Sunday 25 August 2019

Top two out on their own as chasing pack fall way short

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

Jim White

For all the sustained excellence of the top two as they fight to the last for the title, this will hardly be remembered as a season in which wider Premier League standards have risen.

Never mind that a team might well finish second after accruing 97 points, beyond the power struggle between Liverpool and Manchester City the real pattern of the division is one of gathering incompetence.

Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the increasingly maladroit chase for Champions League qualification.

The race for fourth has transmogrified into the after-you-Claude-excuse-me as the four teams involved have sought new ways to fall over their own feet with the finish line coming into view.

Here were Manchester United and Chelsea with the opportunity to land a knockout blow on each other's chin spending 90 minutes flapping around like a pair of playground princesses. When heavyweight slugging was needed, we had featherweight application.

The truth is we are seeing the growing La Liga-fication of the Premier League, with Liverpool and Manchester City in the Real Madrid and Barcelona roles, miles ahead of a chasing pack.

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And it was writ large across the Old Trafford turf where the battle of the rest featured no more than three players who might find their way into either Liverpool or City's squad.

And, try as they might, N'Golo Kante, Marcus Rashford and even the wonderful Eden Hazard were struggling to rise above the nervy jitters permeating the stadium.

This was a game soundtracked by the sigh of disappointment when yet another cross fell short, a pass picked out an opponent or a shot endangered those in the upper tiers.

For much of the time, two clubs recently European champions duked it out for who could prove the most incompetent.

If Antonio Rudiger was not clearing the ball into the back of Marcos Alonso's head then Romelu Lukaku was falling over or Ruben Loftus-Cheek was passing into touch.

Everywhere you looked was concrete evidence of why Per Guardiola's City and Jurgen Klopp's (pictured) Liverpool are running away with this league.

The fact that the goal Chelsea scored to keep them as favourites to emerge from the mire (and to earn them their first point away at a top-six side this season) came from a mistake by United's formerly formidable goalkeeper, David de Gea, was indicative of collective decline. For Chelsea's followers, the explanation for their tottering fortune is simple: it is the manager's fault. Their disdain for Maurizio Sarri was clear from the moment they chanted Frank Lampard's name early in the first half.

For United the issues run deeper. As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stood forlorn and alone in the technical area during the seven minutes of added time, the one thing that must have been clear to him was that he was trying to achieve Champions League qualification with a squad of players that would probably struggle in the Europa League.

That a team fielding a player as woeful as Alexis Sanchez are still mathematically in contention is solely down to the generous hopelessness of others.

As United trudged off at the end, a public address announcement was advertising the forthcoming match to mark the 20th anniversary of their treble success.

If the present and the immediate future looks like this, no wonder they prefer to look to the past at Old Trafford. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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