Nobody expected us to be this far ahead at this stage of the season. At the beginning of December, we were two points behind Manchester City with a five-goal swing to make up in the goal difference. Spurs themselves seemed well out of any conversation for the title and looked to have reassumed their tag as perennial chokers. What a difference a month makes. City have blown their lead at the top and the extra point their goal difference would have given. Spurs are also back in the picture having taken advantage of City’s losses against Crystal Palace and Leicester City to leapfrog them in the table. Going into the last weekend of 2018 we found ourselves six points clear at the top of the Premier League with City’s goal difference, like their lead, wiped out.
There was even more good news on Saturday ahead of our game against Arsenal at Anfield. Spurs were choking again having lost 3-1 at home to Wolves. A win against Arsenal would now put us nine points clear at the top of the league, a position we certainly were not used to. Did you doubt us? Of course not.
It did start hairy though. Arsenal took an early lead through Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi was causing issues down their right-hand side. This Liverpool side though, as I have said on many occasions this season and last, are made of sterner stuff. Plus, Bobby Firmino happened. Arsenal couldn’t handle us. They couldn’t handle taking the lead against us. Firmino’s first, the result of a lucky deflection, opened the floodgates and a fragile Arsenal defence soon began to crumble. The red machine clicked into gear over and over again. Unai Emery – poor, poor Unai Emery – stood helplessly on the touchline as his side was ripped apart. Liverpool tore into the opposition like a lion who had caught a zebra. This was no longer a sporting contest. It became a feeding frenzy.
City finally won a game themselves the next day beating Southampton 3-1 at St. Mary’s, overtaking Spurs and putting themselves within seven points of ourselves. A lot of people will have wanted City to lose that game. My personal feelings at the final whistle were simple. I was glad. They needed to go into this game with all the emotion and pressure of a team with something to chase, just as they did at the Etihad last season in the Champions League quarter-final second leg. They had shown weakness, they had blinked first.
City started said game exactly as everyone had anticipated, like a greyhound out the traps. Aguero, Sane, Sterling – all the big guns were playing and City appeared to fancy it. Liverpool played the strongest side possible but, as the game wore on, it became clear that we missed something in midfield. There was plenty of space between the City midfield and defence, but we didn’t have anyone in midfield to take the ball on the half turn and run with it. Where we previously had Philippe Coutinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, we now had a midfield comprising of Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner. All very good at what they do but not the most creative players.
I don’t need to tell you the outcome of this game, I’m sure by now you are well aware of the score. However, I can tell you exactly why this situation is salvageable.
First of all, we have played the best team certainly in the country at the minute if not in Europe. Manchester City play at a frightening pace with such surgical precision and expert technique. If you catch them on a good day, as we did last night, then you’re in for a bad one. This was the hardest game we will play this season. No one will come near the speed that City played. No one could compete with us before this game and no one will be able to compete with us after it. They played well, we didn’t and we have to accept it.
Secondly, the monkey of being unbeaten is now off out back. Could you imagine the circus this would have created if it had continued? Let’s face it, we were never going to go the whole season unbeaten. Now we don’t have that to worry about. We don’t the constant pressure of “is this the week Liverpool falter?” or “Liverpool are now x amount of games away from finishing the season unbeaten”. Now we can concentrate on the task at hand. We can concentrate on winning the league.
Finally, having Manchester City within four points of us keeps us on our toes. There is complacency in us now, no margin for error. Yes, a certain pressure comes with that but this Liverpool, made of sterner stuff and all that, is built to cope. We are made to handle this and champions must be able to handle this.
Losing is never nice and I am not saying I wanted us to lose. But it isn’t always a bad thing. At the end of the season, we could possibly be looking back on this game and saying it was the game where it all fell apart. Where Liverpool found out and the ‘great pretenders’ were put in their place. Or this could be the game that builds our character. This could be the game that was the very test we needed to prove that we are worthy of the title. To prove that we are capable of being challengers. As ever, I choose to be enthusiastic regarding our chances.
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