The title is now Liverpool’s to lose following a frenetic 3-2 win over rivals Man City on Sunday, and if the Reds get over the line on May 11th, it will owe an awful lot to the bravery exhibited by Brendan Rodgers and his side in what was their biggest game for many years. Let’s take a look at five talking points from the clash:
1. Brendan Rodgers is a brave man. A lucky man, yes. But a brave man nonetheless. Rodgers’ decision to play the attacking Philippe Coutinho in a three-man midfield rather than the more conservative Joe Allen or Lucas was a bold, yet decisive move. Coutinho provided exactly what Liverpool need in order to truly hurt teams – fast transitions from defence to attack.
As we have remarked upon already, Rodgers’ Liverpool side have played a truly scintillating brand of football this season and what is perhaps most remarkable about it is the fact that we have seen a marked departure from the tiki-taka style that Rodgers favoured in his first season in charge. Liverpool now generally have less possession (although they enjoyed a fair bit in that first half at Anfield), but do an awful lot more with it, and players like Coutinho are vital to transforming a defensive situation into a stretched attacking one.
Of course, it was Coutinho’s snapshot that sealed all three points for Rodgers’ side, and that alone was well worthy of the player’s selection, but the fact that he was playing at all pointed towards some serious guts from Rodgers. The Irishman knew that a point would not be enough, and trusted his team to deliver the performance they needed to. It goes without saying that in a sea of footballing caution, it was rather refreshing to see.
2. Big games in the Premier League are exciting again. In the last few years, Sky’s much-vaunted “Super Sunday” has been anything but. With so much at stake in the modern game, tactics have often trumped the televisual aspect of football, and plenty of the much-hyped games between the title contenders have been vapid and lifeless affairs, with both teams desperate not to lose. Not this season.
Aside from the occasional drab goalless draw, most games between the top teams this season have been electrifying, pulsating encounters. Sunday’s game was another such encounter. Liverpool were the kings of the first half, storming into a two goal lead, and if they had been playing any other side, one would have been quite within one’s rights to feel that it was game over. As it was, City came right back into it and dominated the second half, clearly as desperate to win as Liverpool were.
It is triumph for English football that gung-ho attacking football is back in vogue, and is a welcome contrast from the insipid and attritional battles that have categorised the last few years. Long may it continue.
3. Despite their vast wealth, City’s squad is worryingly thin in vital areas. Vincent Kompany was thrust into action on Sunday despite being clearly unfit after an injury the previous day, whilst there was no real replacement for Yaya Toure when the Ivorian limped off in the first half. If they fail to win the league, City will point to an injury list that has featured Kompany and Aguero on it for considerable periods of the season, but the reality is that with the funds at their disposal, such excuses are very hollow indeed.
Should they come up short at the end of the season, question marks will certainly be asked about whether Pellegrini has improved the side enough. City have certainly been far more entertaining this season, but the reality is that with the resources available to them, Pellegrini will have been expected to see off the challenge of Liverpool. I suspect that not one of us thought that Liverpool would be in pole position with four games to go – least of all Pellegrini – but the fact remains that if Rodgers beats the Chilean to the title, this will constitute a serious failure for the City boss.
4. The league is now Liverpool’s to lose. It really is that simple. If Rodgers’ side can win their next four games, they will be crowned champions for the first time since 1990. In Norwich City, Crystal Palace and Newcastle, the Reds face three relatively easy games, although with Norwich and Palace not quite safe from relegation they are not tests that should be taken for granted. Much less of a foregone conclusion is their potentially title-deciding clash with Chelsea on April 27.
If the Reds are able to win their remaining four games and lift the title they would also be equalling a new Premier League record for games won in a row. Rodgers and his charges would now be seriously disappointed if they failed to make this a reality. With their win at City, the title of plucky underdogs is gone. Rodgers will rightly get the plaudits for the way in which he has transformed this side, but having come so far, anything other than a title win is unacceptable at this stage.
The question will be: can Liverpool deal with being the favourites? It is a label that has eluded them consistently over the past 20 years, and it will be interesting to see how this young team will respond when they are expected to emerge victorious.
5. After Rodgers, the manager who will have enjoyed Sunday the most is Jose Mourinho.
The Blues seemed out of it after losses to Palace and Villa, but Liverpool’s win has stopped City in their tracks and given Chelsea a sniff once again. If Chelsea are able to beat Liverpool at Anfield and win their other remaining matches, they will only require City to drop two points in their six remaining games, and given that the Citizens must face Palace and Everton away from home, that is more than a faint possibility.
The reality is that Chelsea are still probably third-favourites behind the Reds and the Citizens, but City’s Anfield loss has given Mourinho a lifeline once again.
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