EPL TALK: Sorry Man City, but Liverpool and Man United in best race now
The two most popular EPL clubs are stealing the thunder away from the league leaders, and that is somehow reassuring
LIKE Will Smith and the less famous one surveying the wreckage in a Bad Boys movie, this s*** just got real. We have a race again, not necessarily the most important in terms of silverware, but the one that actually matters. The one that hits so hard in Singapore and hurts so much in a Manchester City marketing meeting.
Liverpool and Manchester United are back. Actually, they’re not really back, not entirely. They’re living off past heroics, muscle memory and global goodwill, a bit like the last action heroes in those Expendables movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone creak and sag in the wrong places, rather like the Reds and the Red Devils, but their names still resonate with the public.
And that’s gotta sting at the Etihad. There’s Pep Guardiola, waving his arms around like a gifted class prefect, insisting that everyone acknowledges his unrivalled achievements. A fifth English Premier League title in six years beckons. A Champions League semi-final is up next. A rare Treble is a distinct possibility. And yet we can’t steer our gaze away from the two scruffy kids at the back, pulling pranks to get our attention.
And that’s just David de Gea. Rumour has it, he’s still making his way to the ground in a belated attempt to collect Said Benrahma’s back pass. He didn’t, obviously, and now he’s trending first on Singapore Twitter. Chat groups from Manchester to Marine Parade are alive to the possibility of a collapse, of the unthinkable becoming the unbearable, of them beating us.
The deepest, darkest and most demented tribalism has emerged at the best possible time to allow hysterical columnists to go overboard with their alliteration and to remind the world’s richest club that they remain firmly – and ironically - with the “have nots”.
If that sounds like gloating, then read the room, or a balance sheet, or an ongoing investigation into alleged cheating, or the names on every English domestic trophy in the last six years, or the current geopolitical power plays in the Middle East to get a vague idea of the impact of Manchester City across all facets of the game. Except one. Their roots remain relatively shallow. They are still saplings in a wild, sprawling landscape.
Liverpool and Manchester United are still Liverpool and Manchester United. And that’s a good thing. A glorious thing. A little loathing for the oldest of enemies goes a long way in a race that essentially ends with one club earning more in a superior European competition than the other. Just look at the daft banter between Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville and the thousands of supporting/dissenting tweets on both sides. They're upbeat. They're angry. And they're not going anywhere.
The sudden intensity and interest in finishing fourth in the English Premier League is now entirely about football, fandom and bowel-loosening fear. Look over your shoulders, wearying Red Devils. It’s them. In truth, the Reds are no less weary. Their slender victory over Brentford was only marginally better than United’s limp defeat at West Ham, but the performance matters less now than the pantomime.
The world is watching eagerly and waiting for the next banana skin.
Side plots aplenty in final fixtures
There are wonderful side plots to titillate in the coming fixtures. Erik ten Hag’s insistence that Luke Shaw is the only solution to United’s centre-back problems was a feast for the eyes throughout the West Ham debacle. He went for a walk as Benrahma collected the ball and didn’t really come back until De Gea hit the snooze button. While Antony continues to nearly score, nearly create something and nearly settle a contest as he cements his Nearly Man status with erratic authority.
And then there’s Wout Weghorst. The happy-go-lucky Dutch forward began life at United as an amusing pub quiz question. Now he’s a topic for a philosophy paper. What is a Wout Weghorst? What is he for? He’s an overacting extra in a TV drama, catching your peripheral vision, but you’re not sure why. He’s doing so much on camera without any discernible purpose. He has to be there, to make up the numbers. But he’s now distracting us from the main players and should be removed.
Weghorst was slow and lumbering when his team-mates were faster and fitter. After 57 United games this season, they're all moving with the urgency of elephants crossing a muddy river. Just keeping one's footing feels like a major accomplishment.
Ten Hag’s sleepwalkers can still stumble over the line with three wins from their last four games, which will ensure Champions League football and deny Liverpool, but the Red Devils have only managed three victories from their last eight games in all competitions – and one of those was settled by a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup semi-final. The Reds are grinding out maximum points. United are just grinding.
Ten Hag overachieved until the League Cup triumph in February, spectacularly so at times, but his relatively small pool of players are underwhelming now. Optimism has given way to fragility. Like a jittery salesman, there’s less confidence in one’s product and the audience can see it. So can the competitors. Jurgen Klopp sniffs an opening.
Liverpool’s remaining fixtures are decent. Leicester City away, Aston Villa at home and then Southampton away are all winnable games. Conversely, United’s upcoming challenges against Wolves at home, Bournemouth away and then Chelsea and Fulham at home instinctively feel trickier. Ideally, both will drop points and Liverpool and United will take the intriguing race to the very end.
Their financial futures and perhaps even the billionaires who end up in their respective boardrooms will depend on who finishes fourth. Suddenly, there is a compelling narrative to carry this season home.
Manchester City must insist otherwise. Their next EPL coronation is not yet a mathematical certainty and the chase for the Treble should captivate in the weeks ahead. So why the lack of interest? Like the children in HBO’s Succession, why can’t they command the admiration of their predecessors?
They can, and will, if the nagging sense of a rigged game subsides. When the overriding objective is to turn a football club into a trophy-hoarding industrial complex on an scale never previously witnessed, then it’s hard to muster anything more than a polite clap and a rueful shrug when the inevitable becomes reality.
There is nothing inevitable about the race for fourth place and Liverpool and Manchester United get to do what Liverpool and Manchester United always hope to do at this time of year. Chase each other. Provoke each other. Hate each other. It’s perfect.
No one has any idea how this one will play out. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Liverpool and Manchester United get to do what Liverpool and Manchester United always hope to do at this time of year. Chase each other. Provoke each other. Hate each other. It’s perfect.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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