On Sunday afternoon, the Premier League title race will take its most finite and ultimate form. With Chelsea four points off the pace and Arsenal’s season amid implosion, the Anfield clash between Manchester City and Liverpool will represent the two last clubs standing, fighting it out for psychological and mathematical advantage with just a handful of fixtures remaining.
Both clubs enjoy large, militant fan-bases, but for the Premier League neutrals there is little doubt where their support will lie on Sunday afternoon. Being the pantomime spectacle the stage of the Premier League has transformed English football into, those with no personal allegiances will feel morally compelled to lend their support to the Anfield club, not only for the ninety minute title showdown but from now until the end of May.
No one can doubt the way in which Manchester City have enriched the Premier League since their sudden rise from 2007 onwards, backed first by Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai fortunes and secondly and more predominantly by Saudi royalty. Their unprecedented financial firepower of the Etihad has made the Premier League’s summit a more intense, complex and competitive place.
But for the average football fan, there’s something almost sinisterly macabre about the Citizens’ transformation. The Manchester club have spent over £1billion on transfers to get where they are today, enduring endless turnovers of staff and playing personnel in the process. Even by the transfer market’s modern standards, in which a single player can be valued as highly as £86million, City’s fiscally-charged rise from the abyss of English football mediocrity is an incredibly unique story – even Chelsea had qualified for the Champions League and regularly claimed silverware before Roman Abramovich arrived in West London.
That narrative only becomes more prevalent when you compare it to the recent situation at Anfield. Liverpool can be accused more than anyone of irresponsible spending in the past, but since Brendan Rodgers took the helm in 2012, he’s splashed out a combined total of just £98million on new players, equating to a miserly net spend of £70million over the space of two seasons. City spent more in the summer window alone.
Rather, the Reds’ revival under Rodgers has come through abiding by football’s healthiest principles; maintaining an emphasis on youth, especially young Englishmen, and playing positive, attractive, ambitious football.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the drastic philosophical shift of the Merseyside derby this season, a fixture that had previously been lost to the realms of long-ball football and red cards. But under the Ulsterman’s purist influence, with Everton counterpart Roberto Martinez playing an equally as vital role, an aggregate total of 10 goals have been scored in both local clashes this term, a more than fair representation of the incredibly aesthetic styles of football both Mersey clubs have recently adopted. Furthermore, the average player age of both of Liverpool’s starting line-ups against the Toffees this term was just 26 years.
The result has been simply that nobody quite knows what Liverpool, and indeed Rodgers, are capable of. Whether they face Norwich City or Manchester United, there’s a unique sense of ruthless fearlessness about the Reds, as if no challenge, no matter how historically inevitable, financially restrictive or disparate in terms of quality, is too almighty for them to overcome.
No doubt however, Liverpool are unquestionably the underdogs when you compare them to the awesome strength of the Etihad. Brendan Rodgers described them as the ‘little Chihuahua’ in the title race earlier this season, and that animal analogy is certainly fitting.
Whilst Chelsea are lead by one of the best managers European football has ever seen in Jose Mourinho, Arsenal don the Premier League’s longest serving gaffer in Arsene Wenger and Manchester City’s starting XI is propped up by such world-class stars as Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany, Liverpool’s title hopes firmly rest upon the performances of a select few players capable of defying the odds, namely Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and of course, Luis Suarez. Let us not forget, that barring the regular presence of Simon Mignolet between the sticks and Kolo Toure in defence, this is essentially the same Liverpool first team that finished seventh in the Premier League last season.
Be it a British, footballing or simply human characteristic, it’s an enormous rarity when a neutral, in any situation, doesn’t feel compelled to support the underdog.
Likewise, there’s no better way of getting footballing neutrals onside than scoring goals, and whilst City’s 84 in 31 matches is certainly impressive, it’s mildly trumped by their title rivals with 90 from 33. Jose Mourinho’s brand of anti-football may be more effective in affirming results, but Liverpool give the fans what they want to see – goals, and often incredible ones too. Their current average of 2.7 per match is more than any Premier League side, echoing shades of the Kevin Keegan mantra of simply; ‘We’ll score more than you’.
Gary Neville recently quipped that deciding between Manchester City and Liverpool for the title is like choosing between which man your wife should leave you for. But even Manchester United fans will be secretly hoping their ancient rivals can halt the rise of the noisy neighbours. A Citizens outfit with two titles in the space of three years is surely a far greater threat to Old Trafford’s dominance than a single, inspired campaign from Liverpool.
Furthermore, whilst Manchester City marched their way to a Premier League title just two years ago, there’s something indefinably magical about Liverpool’s rise this season, the kind of coincidental fairytale and indulgent sub-plots that only football can provide.
Steven Gerrard faces the prospect of earning his first domestic title at the age of 33, an accolade that the England centurion, former Champions League winner and seven-time PFA Team of the Year member thoroughly deserves for his contribution to Premier League football. It would be an almighty shame if he went down in the history books as the greatest player not to win a Premier League title, through his unwavering loyalty to Liverpool alone.
Likewise, a title this season would be the Reds first since 1990, and perhaps most poignantly, would coincide with 25 years since the Hillsborough disaster, which rocked the Liverpool community at its core and has caused heart-break ever since as the quest for the ultimate truth continues.
A David and Goliath contest on Sunday afternoon, perhaps not quite. Let us not forget that Liverpool have Luis Suarez at their disposal, the Premier League’s top scorer this term with 29 goals and undoubtedly one of the most sought-after strikers in world football, and despite my recent patronisations, the Reds would not be at the top of the English table with just five games of the season remaining if their squad didn’t possess the talent to do so.
But rather, Liverpool represent football in its purest, most natural form. Far from money or resources playing any determining influence, the Reds’ rise has come from doing things the right way without the short-cuts that the power of the purse often provides. They’re a throwback to tradition, the belief that actions on the pitch can conquer all, whilst City represent the capitalist, Americanised, foreign-funded face of modern football.
Through this sense of good versus evil, underdog against monolith, purity against corruption, and all the coincidental side-stories one can fit in between, Liverpool will be privy to the lent faith of the neutrals between now and May-time, starting with Sunday afternoon.