As Liverpool and Manchester City hit the final straight of a pulsating Premier League title race, the big questions will start up again.
Is Pep Guardiola a “bald fraud”? Is Jurgen Klopp “cracking up” as he prepares for Sunday’s mouth-watering meeting with Tottenham? This, it seems, is the way it has to be.
In modern elite sport, the narrative of bottlers and chokers holds mass appeal. What other possible excuse could these pampered, exulted stars have for not winning apart from some sort of ill-defined flimsiness, either individually or collectively?
Additionally, it works perfectly when events are analysed through the binary prism of social media arguments and their bantering thirst for points-scoring. Something is either brilliant or rubbish: You think that’s good, what about this? Were both competitors excellent? No, the losers choked. They bottled it. Because they’re losers.
Of the two teams hammering away so relentlessly at the Premier League summit, it is Liverpool who will hear these shouts the loudest should they fall short.
The 29-year wait for a 19th English top-flight title weighs heavily at Anfield, while Klopp’s misfortune of losing to a succession of very good teams in major finals leaves questions that back-to-back Bundesliga titles at the start of the decade with Borussia Dortmund – at the expense of the mighty Bayern Munich – do not adequately answer for everyone.
Then there is the nature of Liverpool’s last near-miss in 2013-14. Steven Gerrard’s slip, “Crystanbul” and all that. Did Brendan Rodgers’ vibrant but defensively brittle team choke? A run of 16 Premier League games without defeat, which included 14 wins and concluded with 11 of those victories in succession, is not the form of bottlers.
Some of those assists…
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) March 22, 2019
All such streaks end eventually and a phenomenal underdog charge came up short. As for Gerrard, one of the most consistently brilliant careers in modern English football history provides ample evidence of his stomach for the big moments.
City were the champions on that occasion, but the flawed teams of Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini have been upgraded to relentless winning machines. The margins are so fine that any talk of bottling begins to sound a bit ridiculous.
Barring a significant collapse in either team’s form, the runners-up in the Premier League this season will boast more than 90 points. The team in second place has never collected so many. Before the Chelsea and City teams who lifted the title in the previous two campaigns, 90 points had only been surpassed three times since the Premier League was trimmed to 20 teams in 1995-96. Klopp and Guardiola are ripping up the history books in this race for glory.
Looking in more detail at Klopp’s champions/chokers-elect, a defence that was once a source of huge concern is now the most miserly in the Premier League. Virgil van Dijk is rightly considered a frontrunner for the individual awards this year, while goalkeeper Alisson has added to a steeliness that the duo’s recent mishap against Fulham is unlikely to undermine.
In Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, Klopp has a pair of full-backs as good as any working in tandem in world football. At the other end of the field, Mohamed Salah’s selflessness has come to the fore, even if the Midas touch has deserted him in front of goal. In any case, the ebullient Sadio Mane has gleefully picked it up.
ALL goals. Back to back.
The man who can’t be stopped. pic.twitter.com/oVqmhElLWp
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) March 20, 2019
If Liverpool fall short, it will be because they are up against an impeccably coached and lavishly resourced team of wonderful players at City. It will not mean they are not a superb and brilliantly led team in their own right.
The rivalry between two clubs who jovially counted Manchester United as a common enemy not so long ago can feel increasingly bitter and toxic in the online sphere, feeding on a diet of inflammatory and polarising clickbait. That is a shame when Klopp and Guardiola have contrived to give us something so special.
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