And so the Premier League reaches a climax. The big showdown yesterday between Liverpool and Manchester City ended 3-2 to Liverpool. A superb game of football, with Liverpool going 2-0 up, City clawing their way back to 2-2 and looking strong, then Kompany skewing a clearance straight into the path of Coutinho who finished with aplomb to win the game for Liverpool.
Liverpool now two points clear at the top: 77 v Chelsea’s 75 and City on 70 with two games in hand, which, if won, would take them to 76. No other team in it now, with Arsenal having fallen away. Liverpool play Chelsea in two weeks time. The next big decider. Both teams can now win the league if they win all their games.
But how did this happen? How did Liverpool race to the top and Arsenal fall away so badly? On 1 January this year, the top five, all played 19 games, was Arsenal 42 points, City 41, Chelsea 40, Everton 37, Liverpool 36. So Liverpool, having been six points behind Arsenal at the start of the year, are now 13 points ahead. Where did it all go right and wrong?
The symbolic moment is clear. 8 February, Saturday lunchtime, Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1. Liverpool came flying out of the traps and turned Arsenal into nervous wrecks in that first half. 4-0 at half time. Two of the goals were scored by centre back Skrtel, but it was the rampant forward play by Suarez, Sterling and Sturridge and Coutinho, fed by the precision passing of Steven Gerrard, that discombobulated Arsenal. An Arsenal team that arrived at Anfield still top of the League.
Arsenal have never recovered from the shock and Liverpool haven’t looked back.
At the beginning of the season I predicted that the winner of the Premier League would be Chelsea or Man City, with my usual dream that Arsenal might somehow pull it off. (When it comes to winning the League I don’t even think about West Ham doing it.) I could still be right. City and Chelsea are still in there. If Jose Mourinho hatches a successful plan to clip Liverpool’s wings, it could be the Londoners that squeeze ahead on the finishing line. If it’s a draw at Anfield, City could sneak through by winning the rest of their games. And, as ever, at this time of the season, there could be some weird results, with lower teams fighting for their Premier League lives, or, if safe, relaxing and turning on a top performance.
So it’s not clear cut at all, but Liverpool are in pole position – and I never contemplated that. Who did?
There has been a transformation over the season. From a solid team with good prospects, Liverpool have blossomed into the most exciting attacking force seen in the Premier League for a long time. Luis Suarez has been amazing – after missing the first six games of the season through his ban for biting. Daniel Sturridge has fulfilled his potential – a speedy, slinky, ruthless striker, working perfectly with Suarez. Raheem Sterling has just got better and better, either on the right wing or lurking just behind the strikers. Awesome pace and trickery. Philippe Coutinho has roamed everywhere, probing, clinical. And Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard have patrolled the nether regions of midfield, allowing the four man attack to thrive and putting through any number of killer passes. Gerrard has reinvented himself in the deep-lying “quarterback” role, while Henderson has overcome early doubts after his transfer from Sunderland to lay claim to be the most dynamic English midfielder in the league.
It has been a steady build over the season. A slow accumulation of good results which allowed manager Brendan Rodgers to take more attacking risks – playing Sterling and Coutinho at the same time, for example, sacrificing defensive solidity. It has paid off. In a few games the defence has been shaky, but the attack has always made up for it. The 6-3 away win at Cardiff is a classic example.
I now hope Liverpool win the title. It will be a victory for football played the right way. And under a young British manager.
I still have a suspicion that Chelsea will work Liverpool out, especially with Henderson suspended after his horrendous red card tackle on Nasri yesterday and with Sturridge doubtful. The Liverpool squad isn’t as deep as Chelsea’s or City’s. We shall see.
As for Arsenal….
Aaaah. It looked to be going so well. After that first home defeat to Villa, the team could do no wrong, emboldened by the purchase of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. Aaron Ramsey was looking like the best midfielder in the Premier League for a while. The defence, with Mertesacker and Koscielny at the core, was looking the most watertight for years.
But the doubts started to creep in when the team lost 6-3 to Man City in December, shortly after losing 2-0 to Napoli in the Champions league and relinquishing top spot in the qualifying group. Not what you want against one of your title rivals. At that point all the key players were still around, but the injuries then started to kick in. Ramsey, thigh, late December. Walcott, knee, early January, out for the rest of the season. Wilshere, in and out, then foot, March. Ozil, losing a bit of his early season spark, hamstring, March. Others too, but we are talking about ALL the first choice midfielders and the paciest, best forward, out by March. The rot set in before all the injuries, but recovery from the setbacks was made all the harder by losing most of the best players.
Yes, all teams have injuries, but Arenal’s were devastating. They ripped the heart out of the team, the fluid midfield five who swirled around front man Giroud, pulling opposition defences apart. Slowly, the precision, the pace, disappeared. Giroud lost his goal-scoring touch too and started to sulk. And those doubts crept back into the defence. The old Arsenal of the last few years returned. Brilliant on their day, usually against lesser teams; brittle when challenged by better sides. They did OK in the Champions league, going out after a spirited fight against Bayern Munich (their punishment for coming second in the group stage); but the 5-1 defeat to Liverpool was followed by a 6-0 reverse against Chelsea and a 3-0 to Everton. Suddenly the fight is to stay in the Top Four, after still being top in February.
What I am seeing now is a team that loses heart too easily, that lacks the power, pace and precision that it had early season and which Liverpool so clearly has now. The confidence is drained and Arsene Wenger seems to have run out of ideas about what to do. And the players to do it. But they just got past Wigan in the FA Cup semi final, so there is still something to look forward to this season. Surely they will beat Hull in the final.
And maybe that win in adversity – getting through on penalties, but very good penalties – will provide a spark for the rest of the season and secure that 4th place, ahead of Everton.
Next up, later today (as I finish this) a home game against West Ham. My No1 team (West Ham) against my second. The current Arsenal might struggle against West Ham’s physicality. But I expect their superior skills will shine through in the end. If West Ham do sneak a win – and it has happened before at Arsenal – it’s Europa League for the Gunners. And yet more questions about Wenger’s future.
Nervous times for Arsenal. Exciting times for Liverpool.
They could be playing each other in the Community Shield this August. Or it could be Chelsea v Hull….