UCL lesson for League title race: Take Nothing For Granted

UCL lesson for League title race: Take Nothing For Granted

For those who think a one point gap in a Premier League title race that still has nine matches to run is so insurmountable as to give up all hope, this week’s Champions League fixtures had a clear message: you can’t take anything for granted in football.

If Ajax’s toppling of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Tuesday wasn’t clear enough, then Man United’s terrific turnaround in Paris the next day more than brought the message home.

Even the most comfortable looking leads can be overturned, and that must offer some comfort for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool as they look to overhaul Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled defending champions in the Premier League title race.

In truth, it shouldn’t take two remarkable Champions League comebacks to remind anyone of the fragility of a top table lead. We’ve been here before, in this exact scenario. Just cast your minds back to the beginning of December when Man City – just as now – led Liverpool by one point at the top of the Premier League table. No one could have imagined at that point that Liverpool would arrive at Etihad on January 3 – seven games later – with a seven point lead!

Their respective fixture schedules certainly did not suggest such a sea change. Liverpool’s run looked the tougher, at least on paper: Everton, Burnley, Bournemouth, Man United, Wolves, Newcastle and Arsenal; City faced Bournemouth, Watford, Chelsea, Everton, Crystal Palace, Leicester and Southampton.

Yet it was the champions that faltered, losing three of their seven matches. Liverpool were perfect that month – seven straight wins – but the fact that they are back to trailing by one point is proof that they’ve been far from that since that trip to the Etihad. And even further proves that a one point gap with nine games to play is far from unassailable.

The fixture schedule should offer some clue as to how this will go and it gives Liverpool reasons for optimism. Having just gone through a seven game stretch that didn’t involve a single match against a team in the bottom seven, Liverpool’s last nine games include games against no less than six of the teams currently in the bottom seven. Their “toughest” matches – against Spurs, Chelsea and Wolves – are all at Anfield, where they’ve dropped just four points all season.

Manchester City Liverpool
Watford (h) Burnley (h)
Fulham (a) Fulham (a)
Cardiff (h) Tottenham (h)
Crystal Palace (a) Southampton (a)
Tottenham (h) Chelsea (h)
Manchester United (a) Cardiff (a)
Burnley (a) Huddersfield (a)
Leicester (h) Newcastle (a)
Brighton (a) Wolves (h)

Manchester City also face Spurs and three of those bottom teams in the run in but must also take on mid-table sides – like Palace and Leicester, who’ve both beaten them this season – and still have a city derby to negotiate at Old Trafford in April.

Of course, as December taught us, things don’t always go as expected on the fixture schedule – football is played on grass, not paper – and teams fighting relegation may well be a tougher proposition than comfortable mid table sides.

Nevertheless, teams at the wrong end of the table are typically there for a reason and – more to the point – these are the teams that Liverpool have, so far this season, had little trouble disposing off: of the 14 teams outside the top six, only Leicester, West Ham and Everton have taken points off the Reds.

That those points have been dropped over the last seven matches is exactly the reason why City are back in the driving seat, and look the more “in-form” of the two sides. Liverpool, with four draws in seven matches, are generally considered to be “off form”. That’s not necessarily true though. Yes, they looked off their game in those back to back draws against Leicester and West Ham five weeks ago, and they were below par against a depleted Man United side at Old Trafford, but it’s harsh to judge this team right on the back of essentially two derby games which are typically their toughest away fixtures in any given season.

On the other hand, those goal-soaked wins against Watford (5-0) and Bournemouth (3-0) and the chances they fashioned – and spurned – at Goodison suggest Liverpool will enter the last quarter of the season in fine form. Their defence has certainly been rock solid. Inspired by the excellent Virgil van Dijk and further insured by Allison in goal, they haven’t conceded in five straight games now – 512 minutes of play since Mikhail Antonio’s equaliser at West Ham. Their one worry is that top scorer Mo Salah hasn’t been at his clinical best in recent weeks and that could prove critical.

Man City, in contrast, have continued to pile on the points – even if they did lose at Newcastle five weeks ago. They’ve won five straight league matches since then but their last two games show it’s not all smooth sailing. The goals aren’t flowing quite as freely – they’ve managed to score just one goal from open play in their last 300 minutes of play (including the Carabao Cup final against Chelsea).

It took a controversial penalty to see off West Ham two weeks ago, and their win at Bournemouth was another close run affair. Of course, finding a way to win tight games is a good quality – sure beats drawing – but leaving matters so close has its perils too.

Even more troubling for Guardiola are the injuries that are beginning to crop up just as the schedule gets crowded. It’s not so much about the number of injured players – City have a squad big and deep enough to cover – it’s the identity of the stricken: centre backs John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, midfield lynchpin Fernandinho and the superb Kevin de Bruyne are four of City’s most important players.

And it’s no coincidence that their worst run of the season came when the Brazilian was out of commission in December.

It should all make for a tense, exciting run-in. Man City are favourites – as they were even when four points behind – and no one would be shocked if they retained their crown in May. But Liverpool are still very much in it – even if they’ll need to find that December form again. One point is the narrowest of margins and there’s still a lot of football to play.

As we saw in the Champions League this week, unexpected twists and turns are part of the deal.

Take nothing for granted.

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