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Miguel Delaney: Liverpool and Man City know that one slip could be fatal as the Premier League season hits the home stretch

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As the Manchester United group comes to an expectant Anfield tonight, they will no doubt recognize some of the atmosphere with a certain bitterness.

hat isn’t just the feeling of being involved in an intense title race with so much at stake. Some of them may even remember events almost exactly 23 years ago. It’s funny how football history keeps repeating itself in this way, albeit with a twist on what came before.

Then, as now, one of the remaining key motivations for a legendary English club was little more than preventing its main rivals from achieving a feat that surpassed anything they had achieved in their own earlier dynasty.

It was the treble for United in 1999 that Liverpool never managed to achieve in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s now quadruple for Jurgen Klopp and a chance to equal United’s 20 league titles.

Ralf Rangnick’s side can still qualify for the Champions League, but are still a long way off. Even more annoying will be how far they are from Jurgen Klopp’s team. It’s arguably worse than 1999, when a Liverpool team who ended up finishing seventh came back from a 2-0 loss at Anfield to go 2-2, seemingly dashed United’s hopes. Paul Ince, who won two league titles at Old Trafford, was delighted with the late equalizer.

More relevant to what happened next, however, was the resolve Alex Ferguson steeled before such events. He had already fumed after referee David Ellerary gave Liverpool a penalty and then sent off Denis Irwin for a harmless second caution.

“Paul once provided excellent service in a United shirt but left Old Trafford sourly after my opinion of his strengths on the field differed dramatically from his own,” Ferguson wrote in his first autobiography.

“It was no surprise that his goal celebration was gleefully overdone. I hope he enjoyed it. If I’m not mistaken, his time in top-flight football is dwindling fast. In a post-match interview on Sky TV, I made a vow to David Elleray in the back of my mind: ‘We’re not going to let this man deny us our title.’”

They’re words that are surprisingly brutal by modern standards, and certainly don’t seem all that necessary, but the truth is that they’re sentiments that can provide the edge needed in unrelenting title races like this.

This 2021-22 race is now entering its intense final step: the finish. It’s that point of no return where both teams know any slip could be fatal from now on. That’s the view taken by Klopp at Etihad last week, who explained that things are “really happening now” and that Pep Guardiola was repeating himself. The 2-2 draw seemed almost to end in a non-aggression pact to allow both sides to consolidate and go nuts for the encounter ahead.

“We now know that we won’t become champions in one game and one lost result,” said Guardiola.

Both managers know this better than anyone, even Ferguson. Taking previous Premier League run-ins from this point on, where the relevant title challengers had just seven games left, the 2018-19 race is the only one in which both have won all of their remaining games. There has actually only been one other meeting where the two sides have met step by step, and that was in 2008-09 between United and Liverpool. The fact that Ferguson’s team had a slight advantage meant they never quite matched the stifling need to win like 10 years later.

*

W

D

L

f

A

Manchester United 1999-2000

7

27

6

Arsenal 1997-98

7

20

2

Liverpool 2018-19

7

19

4

Arsenal 2001-02

7

15

1

Manchester City 2018-19

7

14

2

Manchester United 2002-03

6

1

24

6

Liverpool 2008-09

6

1

22

6

Chelsea 2016-17

6

1

14

4

Manchester United 2008-09

6

1

15

4

Leicester City 2015-16

6

1

12

2

Chelsea 2014-15

6

1

11

4

* everything until the title has been mathematically sealed

The latter reflects an intensity unprecedented in English football that now weighs on this encounter. It gives greater meaning to every single moment.

That has changed so much since the 1990s and beyond. It’s remarkable considering Blackburn Rovers have won a title despite drawing and losing three of their last seven games in 1994/95 when it was still very even, or even Arsene Wenger’s great Arsenal team in fact, only two of those won their last seven games before mathematically exceeding them in 2002/03.

It was also why Guardiola’s rush to return to the Masters finals after beating Liverpool was somewhat symbolic. It provides an easy comparison as so often the enema was similar.

Ferguson’s Manchester United was like a front runner himself like Tiger Woods. Almost as crucial as their constant ability to put runs together was the threat, that ominous fear that they would come down the tracks.

“It was demoralizing,” said Newcastle United’s Rob Lee of that famous race in 1995-96. “We came every week and heard that they had won: 1-0, Cantona. Hadn’t played that well, 1-0, Cantona…it was relentless.”

This is actually something that has partially disappeared from modern title races due to the current financial disparity in the game. When the big teams get it right, as Liverpool and City have been doing for some time, it has an exponential effect where they are far more likely to win a single game.

It has the almost contradictory effect of increasing the stakes and suspense but decreasing the drama. There aren’t the same spins because there aren’t that many slips.

Of course, that doesn’t lessen the intensity for the City and Liverpool players going into those 14 remaining games. For this reason, the psychological lessons of past title races remain essential, even if the parameters have changed.

It’s about maintaining a bloody focus where the application needs to escalate. If it means imagining rubbing it in the face of an underdog, like Ferguson did with Ince in 1999, or imagining Michael Jordan so often in the battles covered by The Last Dance, then so be it. There is a benefit, and one that can be substantial.

While this Tuesday night’s run-in may “really begin”, as Klopp said, United will be equally aware that that could also be its end.

https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/premier-league/liverpool-and-man-city-know-one-slip-could-be-fatal-as-premier-league-season-reaches-home-straight-41565908.html Miguel Delaney: Liverpool and Man City know that one slip could be fatal as the Premier League season hits the home stretch

Fry Electronics Team

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