We have reached April and Liverpool can still win four trophies.
We have reached April and Manchester City can still win three trophies.
We have reached April and the Premier League, often mocked for its competitive imbalance – often correctly – has a title race between two fantastic, absorbing and possibly all-time teams. This is it.
Both City and Liverpool return today. Liverpool, who have not lost a league game at Anfield since crowds were allowed back, and who have the best home record in the division, host Watford. City, reigning champions, have the best away record in the division and go to Burnley, where they have lost once since 1974.
Liverpool have conceded seven goals at Anfield all season; City have conceded eight on the road. We can expect two more leaders’ victories.
Plenty of matches in the hyped world of the Premier League get week-long build-ups, but this is worthy of one. It will stop neutrals in their tracks, alter plans
Then Liverpool travel to Benfica next Tuesday in the Champions League quarter-finals, while City await Atlético Madrid in Manchester, and all the energy a meeting with Diego Simeone entails.
Still, it would be a surprise were either Premier League club to lose those first legs. That would then set up tomorrow week: Man City v Liverpool.
Plenty of matches in the hyped world of the Premier League get week-long build-ups, but this is worthy of one. It is a match that will stop neutrals in their tracks, alter plans. It has the potential to hold a knock-out blow – City’s one-point lead could be extended to four, for example, and they would be deemed champions-elect.
But next Sunday could also be a draw. That would take the race into late April, because before the Premier League leaders resume, there is an FA Cup semi-final between them at Wembley in a fortnight.
Something must give, then. If City win, Liverpool can no longer claim a Quadruple; if Liverpool win, City can no longer win a Treble. On top of this, there is a possibility of another climactic meeting in the Champions League final in Paris on May 28th.
It means we are about to spend time in the midst of a modern rivalry, watching, listening, speculating whether Rúben Dias is really ready to return and when Trent Alexander-Arnold will make his comeback.
Both City and Liverpool have eight games in 28 April days, so there will be no let-up. We will be hearing a lot from Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. If it's a sporting distraction you're after –and frankly, who isn't? – then this is elite material.
We know the caveats: the Premier League is a laundry; Liverpool's owners were plotting to join a European Super League this time last year; Abu Dhabi Manchester City are hardly the same entity as the one occupying Maine Road for 80 years. We know, we know, and we can place our asterisks as we like.
But we can also see that in Guardiola and Klopp the clubs have spectacular managers; we can see that in Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah, the clubs have mesmerising players. This is a sporting tussle and there was a time not so long ago when it seemed April would stage a City procession rather than a three-pronged contest.
In January, when Liverpool lost a 2-0 lead at Chelsea to sit 11 points behind City, albeit with a game in hand, an April challenge felt far away. City, after all, had just won 11 league games in a row.
“Nothing is impossible,” said Virgil van Dijk after Chelsea, which is different from saying everything is possible. “It’s a big gap [to City] but it’s football, anything can happen. There’s no point giving up.”
Liverpool did not give up. They decided to win their next nine, culminating at Arsenal before the international break.
And now it's last March since they lost at home – to Fulham. Remember then? Fulham became the sixth successive Premier League team to win at Anfield, empty Anfield. It left Klopp's team eighth. April wasn't so much fun either, Real Madrid also knocking the Reds out of the Champions League.
But with Anfield full again, Liverpool have responded. Already they have the same points total as last season and part of their achievement this spring has been to make those 2021 statistics about Fulham and so on sound implausible, fantastical.
City, meanwhile, maintain a rhythmic relentlessness. A year ago they won 27 of 28 matches across various competitions between mid-December and early April. The intensity of Guardiola's players is a given; but the occasional hiccup is there, too. City's fascination is the Champions League; in the Premier League they have just drawn 0-0 at Crystal Palace, three games after the home defeat by Tottenham.
City’s run-in, superficially, looks easier, and that would definitely be the case were Liverpool adrift. But they are not, so there is pressure, there will be mistakes, there will be drama. Football gets a kicking – deservedly at times, as stated – but these are exceptional teams in a particular moment. Let’s enjoy it.
Just over 20 years ago, as United completed their own historic Treble, Man City were in the third division. The Sky Blues lived in the cold Mancunian shadow of United
There are a couple of places where they will not be relishing this top-two rivalry: Manchester and Liverpool.
All politics are local, they say, and maybe the same applies to football. At Old Trafford and Goodison Park, they will be watching the title race through their fingers.
Just over 20 years ago, as United completed their own historic Treble, Man City were in the third division. The Sky Blues lived in the cold Mancunian shadow of United.
No more. City’s bottomless wealth is partially what sets them apart today – and United re-start the season 20 points behind their neighbours. But what United as a club have lacked is not money, but strategy.
In City's transformational decade they have had three managers : Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Guardiola. In the same period United have had Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and now Ralf Rangnick. Another will be along soon.
Obviously the City riches required to acquire Guardiola and to retain him are fundamental, but so too are the frequently unseen personnel around him. We don’t know enough about City’s owners; we know too much about United’s directors.
The disparity on Merseyside is even greater. If Liverpool beat Watford, Everton will go to West Ham – and Moyes – on Sunday 47 points behind their rivals.
The gulf again is not down to money, as Everton’s preposterous debts show, but what the clubs do with it. Liverpool, 80 per cent of the time, have recruited well in the past five years; Everton, 80 per cent of the time, have recruited badly.
Things are so bad, very quietly Everton will want Liverpool to beat Watford. After all, they’re the team keeping Everton out of the relegation zone.