Does anyone really believe Liverpool can unseat Manchester City and win the Premier League title this season? What would it take to convince everyone that they can actually do away with that 25 point deficit from last season and claim their first championship in 29 years?
One thing is for sure their current four point lead isn’t convincing anyone. Heck, the seven point lead they held going into the New Year still had many pundits still predicting a City coronation in May, and City’s subsequent 2-1 win at the Etihad on Jan 3 perhaps justifies that. That it narrowed the gap to four points certainly showed that the race is far from done.
Yet, had the tables been turned – had it been City with the seven point or four point lead – there’d surely be much more certainty about their ability to see it through. Just note the tone of the discussion over the past few weeks: “Can Liverpool handle the pressure of being four points ahead?” Interestingly, the same question was being asked when Man City had a two point lead: “Can Liverpool handle the pressure of chasing City?”
That’s to be expected, I suppose. City have the big, accomplished squad, the mega star manager, and they cantered to 100 points on their way to the title last season. They are defending champions and clear favourites. They’ve been there and done that. Liverpool have not, and as such have to deal with the burden of convincing doubters – to borrow from a well-worn Jurgen Klopp quote. It’s the burden of the underdog: The constant setting and resetting of tests to put minds at ease.
Remember September? I’m sure Liverpool fans do. That was the month that was supposed to test if Liverpool had what it takes to actually compete for the title this season. League matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Man City plus Champions League clashes with Paris St Germain and Napoli would surely test the mettle of any team with serious ambitions. Klopp’s team came through that relatively unscathed, defeats in Napoli and at home to Chelsea in the Carabao Cup regardless. Their unbeaten start to the Premier League season remained intact even if they now trailed City on goal difference.
Then came December and more tests. A busy Premier League schedule – seven matches in four weeks – plus the added pressure of a must-win Champions League game at home to Napoli. If there was ever a time to stumble, this would be it, no? Not quite. Liverpool were even better, winning all eight of their matches to end 2018 as the only unbeaten team in the Premier League, just as City surprisingly stumbled to three defeats and saw their two point lead vanish into a seven point deficit.
Defeat at the Etihad – Liverpool’s first of the season – brought new question marks especially has it was followed by FA Cup elimination (albeit with a much weakened line up) at Wolves. That meant last week’s game at 12th placed Brighton was suddenly being couched as a “must-win” match – another test – for Klopp’s team. As they’ve done all season, Liverpool passed that test, but it’s pretty clear that every match from here on will be seen in pretty much the same light: Win, or else….Man City are right behind you.
It’s a warning they should heed. What better motivation to keep your focus than the pitter-patter of the champions’ footsteps right behind you? Yet, City should have cause for concern too. Yes, they are favourites for a reason and their December troubles are proof that things can change quickly in a title race. But they are four points behind and their title hopes are no longer in their hands. They now have to produce the kind of form that saw them drop just two points through the first 20 games of last season – no more slip ups – and above all they’ll need Liverpool to stumble.
The thing is, Klopp’s Liverpool are the one team that has not stumbled in the Premier League this season. They started with six straight wins and have stayed consistent while others have faltered. Their win at Brighton made it 12 wins in their last 13 games and they’ve dropped just 9 points from a possible 66 points this season while conceding just 10 goals. That they haven’t dropped a single point to a team outside the top six is particularly telling, since all but three of their remaining 16 matches are against teams outside the top six. Of course, the fact that something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t – this is football, after all – but if Liverpool maintain that record, City will have a hard time holding on to their crown.
All that won’t remove the doubts though. It won’t ease the burden of the underdog. City remain favourites and Liverpool will have to go out and prove they are worthy contenders every step of the way.
Only the ultimate prize would remove all doubt.