Sideline Cut: Will there be one more unfathomable football fantasy?
Final day could produce something as unbelievable as the Champions League
Man City Pep Guardiola and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp react on the sidelines in January. Photograph: Getty Images
Until the queer magic of Tuesday night, winning the English Premier League had become Liverpool’s season-long obsession. If the league is a gruelling marathon through heavy fields, then Manchester City and Liverpool had broken free of the pack before the 10-mile marker and thus divided the competition into three distinct races.
There was the claustrophobic elbowing and jostling for the two remaining places in the top four and, at the other end of the table, the real stuff; the desperate scramble to avoid relegation. The first half of the season had, as a fascinating subplot, the slow-motion fall of Manchester United into dysfunction, with the harrowed expression of José Mourinho as he shuffled in dad clothes between the Lowry hotel and Old Trafford, giving way to the snap sacking, the intense speculation and the surprise reappearance of Manchester’s favourite Scandinavian.
But the essence of the league became the private and splendid duel, through sunshine and snow, between Liverpool and Manchester City for first place. Because team managers have become the principal figures in the soap-operatic coverage of the Premier League, 2018/19 also became a kind of riveting chess match between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
In just three seasons, Pep has transformed City from a wildly rich and expensive club dogged by inconsistency into a beautiful if somewhat soulless exhibition of football perfection; a relentless threshing machine with the potency of making other very expensive teams look inept and incapable of playing football – that second slower in touch and thought, and therefore fatally clumsy and clunky in comparison. City have all the money in the world and the talent at Guardiola’s disposal is unfair. But he still had to coach those players to create this spectacle.
In three years, Klopp has won nothing with Liverpool and yet the Reds fans within the city swoon before him because he is, in the best sense, completely mad: wildly energetic and impulsive and uncannily in sync with the club’s rich history and sharp wit and sentimentality that has drawn in Liverpool’s army of fans worldwide.
Klopp’s comment after Tuesday night’s fabulousness and the 4-0 humbling of Barcelona, described his team as “f***ing mentality giants” were quickly dispersed around the world. Twenty-four hours later, they would be repeated in Oakland, California by Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, whose team are locked into a fierce seven-game play-off battle with the Houston Rockets. The Warriors lost their totemic figure Kevin Durant to a calf strain in the third quarter but still survived to win the game. Kerr is, at 53, young for an NBA coach, extremely successful, and outspoken in his social and political views. And caught up in the emotion of the win, his mind turned what he had seen from Anfield the previous evening.
“I don’t know if you’re a soccer fan but Liverpool yesterday came out with one of the great wins in soccer history,” Kerr said in his press conference. “And after the match their manager Jurgen Klopp said that the young kids in Liverpool are probably asleep now so I am just going to go ahead and say it: our boys are f***ing giants. That’s what he said. I know how he feels. I apologise to my mom but our guys are f***ing giants. That was an unbelievable victory tonight.”
When Bill Shankly was managing Liverpool, it’s highly unlikely he had even heard of the Golden State Warriors, or of Alex Hannum, their coach in the early 1960s – or Hannum of Liverpool FC. Sporting glory was provincial then; the triumphs cross continents at the speed of light now. Elite professional sport is global and ideas and approaches – and words – are interchangeable.
Had you given Klopp the opportunity, prior to the Barcelona semi-final ties, to swap a European Cup for the Premier League title, he would surely have taken it. Equally, Guardiola may have preferred to see his side lift the European Cup this year rather than a second successive Premier League – they’ll probably bag that next year anyway.
But what, for Liverpool fans, could surpass the communion of city and club on Tuesday night? Part of the thing of following Liverpool is the fanciful belief that winning the league is, for the club, a manifest destiny. But it must have occurred to the thousands floating out of Anfield on Tuesday night that to even pray for another miracle would be greedy. One night later, when Spurs staged their equally audacious coup of a 3-2 away win against Ajax, the giddiness and delight for partisan and neutrals alike was accompanied by an unsettling feeling that football had somehow trumped itself.
What could ever better the Scouse wit of Trent Alexander Arnold’s insolent cornerkick for the winning goal at Anfield? What could exceed the monumental drama and emotional shift in the seconds before and after Lucas Moura’s hat-trick goal, in the 95th minute in Amsterdam? It was through the looking glass stuff. Through both those semi-finals, two quintessentially English clubs broke into a different realm. Spurs were the first English club to land significant European silverware in 1963 but too often they seemed fated to play the role of eternal flatterer, with a modern history littered with players of delicate genius and exuberant strikers but never quite substantial enough to go and win the big stuff. Until now.
The transcendence of those two nights has cast the Premier League in a new light on this, its closing weekend. The competitiveness of the league as a contest to be won is an illusion. If the games are fiercely tough and combative, the richest and deepest invariably come out on top. If Liverpool hadn’t surprised even Klopp by somehow managing to live with City’s remorseless win ratio this year, then the season would have been a disaster: over before it began. Instead, it has turned into a magnetic, compelling game of wills and a battle for ascendency between English football’s unseated aristocrats and its newly wealthy.
Logic demands City travel to Brighton on Sunday and duly record their 31st win of the season to finish on 98 points. The best Liverpool can do, in hosting Wolves and winning, is to finish on 97 points and finish second to City. They will lose just one game all year –to City’s four – and still fall short.
Before Tuesday night, it was noted that for all of Liverpool’s brilliance and the happiness they have bestowed on their people, the team and Klopp would finish the season with nothing but memories. And that may still be the case after the Champions League final because try convincing Mauricio Pochettino and his team now that this is not their year.
This week has been unfathomable. Even Guardiola, in the hours before he sends out his team to beat Brighton, might be forgiven for thinking that this football season is somehow spooked, rigged by the gods – and that there might be another lurch into fantasy before it has finished with everyone.