Thursday 21 November 2019

Roy Curtis: 'The incentive for Liverpool will be to drive a title stake through Manchester City’s heart'

Salah celebrates netting Liverpool's fourth goal. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Salah celebrates netting Liverpool's fourth goal. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Roy Curtis

Like the Beatles on Abbey Road, Liverpool’s Fab Four are at a crossing, one which, if successfully negotiated, will yield an iconic image to endure beyond all their days.

Fifty years on from John, Paul, George and Ringo’s classical album cover, Jurgen, Mo, Virgil and Sadio can deliver their own immortal freeze-frame, a snapshot for the ages.

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Victory over Manchester City will carry the House of Shankly to the other side of the avenue of achievement. It will represent a crossing of the sporting Rubicon.

It will announce Anfield, even with the season’s first chapter scarcely complete, as home of the champions-elect.

The incentive for Jurgen Klopp’s side is less to add another three points to their storehouse of high achievement than to drive a stake through the champions’ heart.

And, in the process, to turn the clock back fully 30 years.

Watchful old pros like Graeme Souness have cautioned against the folly of billing any game fully six months out from the Premier League finishing line as offering the definitive Supreme Court verdict on the title race.

Souness is a brilliantly unfiltered, insightful analyst, as sharp under the TV lights as he was on a rectangle of grass.

The Liverpool side that won the Canon League Division One trophy for the 1983/84 season before they went on to beat Roma in the European Cup final in Rome. Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images
The Liverpool side that won the Canon League Division One trophy for the 1983/84 season before they went on to beat Roma in the European Cup final in Rome. Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images

But, even the belligerent Scot, in his 1980s pomp, occasionally misplaced a pass. Souness is great, the best of all the highly remunerated talking-heads.

What he is not, however, is infallible.

If his thesis, the one that insists that the title deeds to a season cannot possibly be seized fully 50 days before Christmas is ordinarily unimpeachable, his hypothesis perishes under the weight of these extraordinary times.

Extraordinary, because of the uncommon wave of momentum Liverpool continue to boldly ride, one that has seen them commandeer an otherworldly 58 points from a possible 60 stretching back to last March.

And also because City’s defensive stockades - the continued absence of Aymeric Laporte accentuated by the negligence in replacing their retired colossus Vincent Kompany and, now, the loss of hugely influential goalkeeper Ederson - have rarely looked as emaciated at any time in the Guardiola era.

Opportunity is knocking at Anfield with a wrecking ball force.

If Liverpool win, then, however Souness and, indeed, Klopp himself, admonish any talk of impending deliverance, a first domestic crown since weeks before Italia ’90 will follow.

The Anfield galleon, with an intense wind at its mainsail, has acquired the aura of a vessel for which nothing is impossible.

Virgil Van Dijk
Virgil Van Dijk

Sparking like crimson glow worms, Klopp’s oxyacetylene force have won 19 of their last 20 Premier League games.

That bone-chilling consistency is underpinned by an escapologist’s instinct.

This team’s calling card is increasingly its ability to locate a getaway car just as they appear on the brink of being apprehended by fate.

An unceasing blowtorch intensity softens and weakens opponents. Then, so often, the late kill, one that speaks of a club with unrivalled reservoirs of spirit and self-belief.

It is revealing that the 15 league goals Liverpool have scored beyond the 85th minute since the start of last season sets a standard none of their rivals can equal.

Already in the opening flourishes of 2019/20 the sharp drill-bit of their persistence has struck the black gold of eight points from five buzzer-beating goals against Leicester, Manchester United, Spurs and, last weekend, Aston Villa.

The Merseysiders wear that new-found ability to face down the most dire circumstances like a suit of armour. Even their youth wing were infected by that same conviction in that wild ten-goal, Carabao Cup duel with Arsenal.

They have coined a phrase for it at Anfield: Kloppage Time.

It illustrates how this reanimated Liver Bird, in its refusal to have its wings clipped no matter how unpromising the odds, increasingly resembles the loathed foe that, infamously, knocked it from its gilded domestic perch.

The palpable similarities between Liverpool’s class of 2019 and peak-Fergie Manchester United – fearless, relentless, forever dodging the Grim Reaper’s scythe, summoning late windstorms of hope, finding a way to sunlight – cannot have gone unnoticed by Pep Guardiola.

Perhaps that is why City’s ordinarily suave El Jefe appeared so spooked as he digested the news of Klopp’s latest rolling back of the stone at Villa Park eight days ago.

When Guardiola chose to shine a spotlight on Sadio Mane’s “diving”, it seemed less like a shrewd psychological flourish, than a panicked thrash in the dark.

It spoke of a coach who understands that a real and substantial enemy, one consumed by the capture of the Premier League infinity stone currently residing in City’s vaults, are at the gates of his dreamland kingdom.

Even amid the November rain there is a sense that a defeat today, one that would secure a nine-point advantage for Liverpool, could send City’s three-in-a-row ambitions into something resembling a death spiral.

It is true that the stars seemed similarly aligned for Klopp in January of this year.

But the Liverpool who surged seven points clear with Mo Salah’s winner at Brighton were not today’s fully-formed, clinical, masters of their own destiny.

It is as if the assurance that comes with winning a Champions League coated the red knights in a new layer of certainty and resilience and predestination.

It is difficult to imagine them removing the jackboot from City’s throat should they surge nine points clear.

An injury to Van Dijk, in particular, would ask difficult questions; But Liverpool found impressive answers when their influential goalkeeper, Alisson, was cut down for the entire autumn.

Of course, City remain an absurdly gifted offensive force: De Bruyne, Aguero, Sterling, either Silva, Jesus, Mahrez, any of that magnificent seven require but a nanosecond to change the course of a season.

Yet, the incentive for Liverpool to be brave this afternoon, to make a statement that will ring out across the football world, shines like an avenue of Broadway lights.

Klopp’s team took just one point from six against City last season and yet were just a point from winning the title. Even with two draws, glory would have been theirs.

If – and it remains a substantial “if” - Liverpool boldly capture all three today, it will, feel like a defining moment, an authentic changing of the domestic guard.

And, 50 years on, Lennon and McCartney’s old town can legitimately anticipate a piece of history, one as iconic as that moment when John and Paul stepped out onto Abbey Road.

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