Football/Soccer

Kenny Archer: Liverpool still in the hunt with magnificent Manchester City

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (left) and Manchester City's Pep Guardiola have created two terrific teams.

IT’S over, you say?

No, it’s only just begun.

Anyone who has followed sport for any time would surely realise that the English title race still has a long way to run. Almost a quarter of the campaign, in fact.

Any Manchester City fan who wishes to crack the ‘bottlers’ jibes about Liverpool FC and crack open the Champagne would be guilty of premature celebration, and could be left feeling worse than having egg on their face.

Don’t get me wrong: I thought City would win the title at the start of this season and my opinion hasn’t changed at any stage.

Not even at the beginning of this year, when the Reds held a seven-point advantage.

Yet only a fool would say that a one-point gap (even if it’s effectively two points due to City’s superior scoring difference) is insurmountable.

Sure, City have been looking invincible recently; indeed, better than that, they just keep on winning.

Yet few would have predicted them losing at home to Crystal Palace and away to Leicester City, as they did in late December. Fewer still would have foreseen them losing at lowly Newcastle United, as they did in late January.

Somewhat strangely, the ‘bottlers’ accusation has been thrown less at a team which has lost four league games than it has at the side which has been beaten only once – and that away to City themselves, in the first match of 2019.

The only reason Liverpool were so far ahead at one stage is that City ‘bottled’ December by losing three out of seven league games – while the Reds won all seven of their matches in that month.

Bear in mind too that City still have to take on the unstoppable force that is Manchester United.

I’d wager that plenty of the people who declare that Liverpool have ‘lost’ or ‘blown’ the league also said that City ‘couldn’t possibly’ catch the Reds when they had that seven-point lead at the end of 2018.

Such spouters seem to forget that draws can be almost as damaging as defeats, and Liverpool have had four of the former to go with a crucial one of the latter in their nine league outings in 2019.

Sixteen points from nine matches isn’t even good enough for the top four (over a full campaign), never mind title-winning form.

Clearly Liverpool need to collect many more points from their last nine games – and even winning them all might not be enough now.

Looking ahead to that Man City-Liverpool game in early January, this column contained the following phrase ‘if – and it’s a big, 96-point IF – Liverpool somehow hang on to win the title’…

The Reds might need to exceed 96 points to become champions – and they could only do that by winning all their remaining games. And it still might not be enough.

The league title is now in City’s hands again. If they win their last nine matches – and they might – they will be crowned back-to-back champions for the first time ever.

There’s no doubt that they’re more than capable of collecting the full 27 points available.

That would mean their winning 14 consecutive league games – and 19 of their last 20 – but that’s not beyond them.

As my esteemed colleague Michael McWilliams wrote back in August, previewing the season, ‘it would be a brave man who bets against City making it two on the bounce come May’. City were odds-on (8/11) favourites, with Liverpool 4/1.

However, Liverpool had a phenomenal first half of the season. So good that they were actually on course to break City’s own record points tally of 100 from the previous campaign.

The Reds won 17 and drew three of their opening 20 league matches. Losing none, in case that isn’t totally clear.

They were clearly over-performing though. Exceeding expectations. It was highly unlikely, almost impossible, that Liverpool would be able to sustain such form, especially as they still had to make trips to the Etihad, Old Trafford, and Goodison Park – and so it has proved.

Referencing their last two title challenges, this column pointed out that ‘Liverpool took 44 points in their second set of 19 games a decade ago, and 48 five years ago; I’d probably settle for the former tally this time around’.

Such a scenario would have left the Reds on 95 points this time around.

Only seven sides have exceeded 90 points in the Premier League era; Liverpool might do that and still not win the title.

It’s not about bottle.

City are simply still better, which isn’t altogether surprising as they have a far more expensively assembled, deeper squad. As pointed out here in January, they also have superior creativity and scoring power.

In terms of criticism, Liverpool are being beaten with the bar that they raised themselves.

Remember that City were so impressive last season – losing only two, crazy league games, against Liverpool and Manchester United – that they seemed set to dominate English football for at least the next five years. They still might.

The fact that Liverpool are even close to them is actually rather remarkable, given that they finished 25 points behind City last time.

Even with their recent wobble Liverpool have literally never finished a season with as high a points per game average as they have now. Ever.

Not even the truly great sides of 1978-9 or 1987-8. Of course, this season isn’t over, but that statistic is indicative of how the standard of English football is now, at least in terms of points-gathering.

Liverpool’s last title (way back in 1990) was won with a tally of 79 points. They’ve bettered that four times in the Premier League era, but even their highest modern total of 86, a decade ago, wasn’t enough to finish as champions.

The run-in will be interesting.

Among many observers there’s a ‘goldfish mentality’, with mouths opening and nothing intelligible or intelligent coming out.

Yet anything other than a very short-term perspective shows how well Liverpool are actually doing.

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