Liverpool and Manchester City free and fearless as finishing line nears
Regardless of who wins league title, both sides will be worthy of applause at the end of season
Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates scoring his side’s first goal in their 2-0 win over Cardiff at Cardiff City Stadium. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
And still they come. It is one of football’s great truisms that the league table never lies. But it can tell the odd half-truth.
There will be an insistence from some quarters that one of Manchester City or Liverpool has to lose this thrilling Premier league title race, that there must be a slip, a choke or a stumble. Except, sometimes that story doesn’t doesn’t quite fit the facts. Do either of these teams look like losers yet?
Liverpool had every opportunity to stutter in Cardiff, to become clogged by nerves, to feel the season start to drift away in the milky spring sun.
Fat chance. Instead by the end of another breathless weekend Jurgen Klopp’s team were still top of the table, because to date they have played and won slightly more. Just as this year the league will not be lost, only won, by whichever of these two winning teams turns out to be the winningest.
It is worth saying this now before some late detail divides them. Liverpool and City will be separated over the next three weeks, in the same way a swimming final can be decided by little more than the rhythm of the stroke, a brush of a fingernail to take the gold. But the league has two champions teams this season.
This was the message of the weekend with two close victories dredged out of the deep reserves on both counts. On Saturday Pep Guardiola had produced an atypical kind of master-stroke with the selection of Phil Foden to start against Tottenham. This wasn’t a piece of systems football or a clever shift of tactics. It was pure personality, pure inspiration, a reminder to the home fans after the gloom of midweek that the sun also rises; and more prosaically that City have huge reserves of creative talent to call on.
Liverpool’s response on Sunday afternoon also came from a deep place, with an opening goal that was a reminder of the fact that every part of this fourth season Klopp team puts its shoulder to the wheel.
And yes Liverpool are supposed to beat Cardiff, who had nine players in their starting 11 who played in the Championship last season.
Still, though, there was a tension to be resolved here and a disciplined, orderly opponent in their way. As the teams kicked off Neil Warnock stalked his touchline with a sense of purpose, already puce with rage – a man not just wronged, but wronged relentlessly every single moment of every competitive match of his 39-year managerial career.
Early on the bruising speed of Nathaniel Mendez-Laing exposed the weakness in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive game. Alexander-Arnold is a superb modern full-back and a young man playing at a very high level. But better finishing from Junior Hoillet could have put Liverpool in some jeopardy.
Was this is it? Were we seeing the much-promised blink in action? It hardly felt like it, even with the score 0-0 at half-time. Cardiff were already growing a little tired, frazzled by the effort required just to stay level.
The opening goal on 57 minutes was a beautiful thing from an unexpected place. Giorgio Wijnaldum hadn’t had a shot at goal away from Anfield since the third of January. He wandered away from Alexander-Arnold’s corner kick, then drifted on to a low cut back.
There were two sounds. First the thrilling thud of Wijnaldum’s right foot connecting with the ball. And second the hiss and the clank as it flew hard and flat into corner of the net, a supreme moment of skill and a reminder of how good even the most workmanlike player is in a team like this.
A late James Milner penalty killed the game. And so Liverpool’s best spell of the season continues, those nine wins with 24 goals scored since early March. Like City, this is a team rushing towards the point of crisis, becoming freer and more fearless as the finishing line approaches.
It is relentlessly tough to keep this level of intensity under pressure. Just check out the rest of the top five this weekend: the wretchedness of Manchester United; Arsenal’s ability to lose at the vital moment; the way Spurs have reacted to the idea the title was “technically in their own hands (arguably the worst place for it to have been).
Currently the third, eight, ninth and 10th richest clubs in the world are more than 20 points behind the top two. This will be a cause for concern when it comes to the robustness of the league. But it is also a reminder that nobody is losing this title, nobody is letting this slip; and that the applause on the final day will be shared whoever gets to step up to the confetti-strewn plinth.