Liverpool and Man City know one slip could be fatal as Premier League season reaches home straight

The quality and intensity of the title race have left no margin for error as the two sides enter the final stage of the season with just one point separating them

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 19 April 2022 15:48
Comments
<p>Just one point separates Man City and Liverpool at the top of the table</p>

Just one point separates Man City and Liverpool at the top of the table

As the Manchester United party get to an expectant Anfield tonight, they will doubtless recognise some of the atmosphere with a degree of bitterness. That is not just the feeling of what it’s like to be involved in an intensive title race, with so much on the line. Some of them may even remember events almost exactly 23 years ago. It is funny how football history tends to keep repeating in that way, albeit with a twist on what went before.

Then, as now, one of the primary remaining motivations for a storied English club was little more than stopping their main rivals from achieving a feat that went beyond anything they had achieved in their own previous dynasty.

It was the treble for United in 1999, which Liverpool had never managed in the 1970s and 1980s. It is the quadruple for Jurgen Klopp’s now, as well as the possibility of matching United’s 20 league titles.

Ralf Rangnick’s side can still qualify for the Champions League, but remain some way off that. More galling will be just how far they are off Jurgen Klopp’s team. It is arguably worse than in 1999, when a Liverpool team that ended up seventh came back from 2-0 at Anfield to draw 2-2, and seemingly dent United’s hopes. Paul Ince, who won two league titles at Old Trafford, took immense relish in scoring a late equaliser.

More relevant to what happened next, however, was the determination that steeled Sir Alex Ferguson from such events. He had already been aggravated by how referee David Ellerary had given Liverpool a penalty and then sent off Denis Irwin for an innocuous second booking.

“Paul once gave sterling service in the United shirt but he made a sour exit from Old Trafford after my opinion of his strengths on the field began to diverge dramatically from his own,” Ferguson wrote in his first autobiography. “It was no surprise that his celebration of his goal was gloatingly excessive. I hope he enjoyed it. Unless I am mistaken, his time in top-level football is dwindling fast. In a post-match interview on Sky TV, I made a vow with David Elleray in mind: ‘We will not let this man deny us our title.’”

They are words that are surprisingly brutal by modern standards, and certainly don’t seem all that necessary, but the truth is that they are sentiments that can offer the edge required in title races as relentless as this.

This 2021-22 race is now reaching its intense final step: the run-in. It is that point of no return, when both teams know that any slip could from now on be fatal. This was a view stated by Klopp at the Etihad last week, who declared that it “really starts now”, and that Pep Guardiola himself echoed. That 2-2 draw almost seemed to end with a non-aggression pact so as both sides could consolidate and rev up for the run-in to come.

“We know now that one game, and a dropped result, then we will not be champions,” Guardiola said.

Both of these managers actually know this better than anyone else, even Ferguson. Taking previous Premier League run-ins from this point on, where the relevant title challengers only had seven games left, the 2018-19 race represents the only one where both won all their remaining fixtures. There has actually only been one other run-in when both sides matched each other stride for stride, which was 2008-09 between United and Liverpool. The fact Ferguson’s team had a slight advantage meant it never quite reached the asphyxiating necessity to win as 10 years later.

The Premier League’s best run-ins*

W

D

L

F

A

Manchester United 1999-2000

7

0

0

27

6

Arsenal 1997-98

7

0

0

20

2

Liverpool 2018-19

7

0

0

19

4

Arsenal 2001-02

7

0

0

15

1

Manchester City 2018-19

7

0

0

14

2

Manchester United 2002-03

6

1

0

24

6

Liverpool 2008-09

6

1

0

22

6

Chelsea 2016-17

6

1

0

14

4

Manchester United 2008-09

6

1

0

15

4

Leicester City 2015-16

6

1

0

12

2

Chelsea 2014-15

6

1

0

11

4

* all until moment the title was mathematically sealed

The latter reflects an intensity never seen before in English football, that now weighs over this run-in. It imbues every single moment with a greater importance. That is what has so changed from even the days of the 1990s and beyond. It is remarkable to think now that Blackburn Rovers won a title despite drawing one and losing three of their last seven games in 1994-95, when it was still very much in the balance, or that even Arsene Wenger’s great Arsenal team actually only won two of the last seven games until it went mathematically beyond them in 2002-03.

This was also why Guardiola’s rush to get back for the final round of the Masters after the Liverpool match was someway symbolic. It offers an easy comparison, since that is so often what the run-in resembled.

Ferguson’s Manchester United were themselves like a peak Tiger Woods. Almost as decisive as their constant ability to put runs together was the threat of it, that ominous fear that they were coming down the tracks.

“It was demoralising,” Newcastle United’s Rob Lee said of that famous 1995-96 race. “We’d come in every week, and hear they’d won: 1-0, Cantona. Hadn’t played that well, 1-0, Cantona… it was relentless.”

Klopp and Guardiola embrace after Liverpool’s victory over Man City in their FA Cup semi-final

This is actually something that has partly gone from modern title races, because of the current financial disparity in the game. When the big teams get it right, as Liverpool and City have now done for some time, it has an exponential effect where they are far likelier to win any individual game.

It has the almost contradictory effect of heightening the stakes, and the tension, but reducing the drama. There aren’t the same twists, because there aren’t as many slips.

That does not lessen the intensity for the City and Liverpool players going into these 14 remaining games, of course. It is also why the psychological lessons of past title races remain essential, even if the parameters have changed.

It is about keeping a bloody-minded focus, where the application needs to escalate. If it means imagining rubbing it in the face of an outsider, as Ferguson did with Ince in 1999 or Michael Jordan so often imagined in the battles covered by The Last Dance, so be it. It gives an edge, and one that can be essential.

While this Tuesday evening might well be where the run-in “really starts”, as Klopp said, one thing United will be just as aware of is that this could also be where it ends.

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