Fuelled by the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy and euphoric ‘champions-elect’ expectations, Liverpool are riding a tidal wave of emotion…but they’re heading straight into a sky blue storm.
The short range forecast for Merseyside has become clouded by the giddy highs of recent weeks and an unexpected depression is about to hit, and hit hard, mid-afternoon on Sunday.
Very few are predicting it, but a massive low is anticipated to sweep in along the East Lancs Road and hover over the Anfield area, whilst leaving bright blue horizons in a sunny and glowing Manchester.
Both Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini are diplomatically agreeing that this – despite the high stakes – is not a winner takes all shootout. Undeniably, the victor will gain a huge advantage but, in a season where we have come to expect the unexpected, there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.
It’s a fascinating scenario with both teams holding their destiny in their own hands. It’s not dissimilar to when City played another red foe – United – back in April 2012, when a 1-0 win at the Etihad, with just two games to go, made it advantage City.
Whether it’s Liverpool or City who are favourites on this occasion is highly subjective. If the hosts succeed in making it 10 PL wins on the bounce they will open up a yawning seven point gap over City.
Pellegrini’s men would still have two vital games in hand but would be powerless to quell the Mersey surge, if Liverpool claimed maximum points from their remaining four games.
Conversely, if City can make it six PL games unbeaten against ‘Pool, stretch their impressive away form to 11 undefeated and limit the losses to just one in their last 21 league games, the momentum swings massively over to Manchester.
Either way, it’s the stuff of nightmares for Manchester United and the sweetest of ironies that the team Fergie always declared provided Manure with their biggest matches of the season, are now locked in title combat with the once inconsequential or, at best, ‘noisy’ neighbours.
With Premier League supremo Richard Scudamore, lamenting United’s accelerated decline and the supposed damage to the PL ‘brand’, a restoration of one of the ‘old guard’ to the status of champions would be the next best thing.
From a commercial perspective, a Liverpool title win, in such an emotionally-charged and truly competitive season, would be manna from heaven for the PL money men.
But how best to help achieve such a cash rich outcome? Taking the task to heart, the Premier League’s Department of Creativity came up with the selection of Mark Clattenburg to officiate at Anfield.
Such is the paucity of decent calibre Premier League referees that City fans taunt inept officials with a chant of ‘You’re worse than Clattenburg, you’re worse than Clattenburg…’
Compared with the likes of Andre Marriner, Lee Mason, Mike Jones, Phil Dowd, Martin Atkinson, Lee Probert, Anthony Taylor, Chris Foy, Jon Moss, Michael Oliver, Kevin Friend, Neil Swarbrick and dear old Howard ‘The Red’ Webb, Clattenburg probably gets a raw deal from City fans – but that’s being damned with very faint praise.
Some will be quick to point out that Clattenburg was in charge when City spread bird flu at Old Trafford, inflicting the famous ‘Sick-Swan’ defeat on Fergie in October 2011.
Whatever the outcome of this mouth-watering affair, it must be hoped that the result is determined on football merit and not a dodgy penalty, a blatant offside or a dubious sending off, for either side.
Equally, is it really asking too much that Liverpool centre back Martin Skrtel’s weekly contribution to ‘Wrestlemania’ at every corner or set play could be curtailed by Clattenburg?
This is a coming together of the goal machines of the English top flight – Liverpool have netted 90 so far, with City just six behind, having played two games less. Attack is the preferred form of defence for both sides and this promises to be a high octane affair. It’d be a brave man who bet big on a 0-0 draw.
Any form of stalemate would suit City who have drawn on their last three trips to Anfield – twice in the PL and once, when they needed to win, in a League Cup semi-final 2nd leg.
Manuel Pellegrini has already stated that City cannot, and will not, set out to draw. It goes against his football philosophy and it also goes against common sense inviting the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling to rampage at a City defence, not without its shortcomings.
City have conceded 29 goals this campaign but Liverpool are far from watertight at the back with 40 in the goals against column.
Rodgers must decide whether to recall fit again Daniel Agger or stick with Mamadou Sakho, whereas Pellegrini needs to assess if Sergio Aguero is restored to the City attack from the kick-off or the sub’s bench.
Clearly not match fit after missing City’s last five games – four wins and a draw, in which they’ve scored 15 goals – Aguero brings a new dynamic to the team.
His Argentine team mate Pablo Zabaleta has compared Aguero’s availability and potential impact to that of Carlos Tevez’s when, after his infamous spat with Mancini in Munich, he helped fire City to the PL crown in the last six matches.
If, in the final analysis it came down to goal difference to decide the title it could be a tight call. City presently have a five goal buffer and the extra 180 minutes to play in re-scheduled games against Sunderland and Aston Villa.
They could count for nothing if a Steven Gerrard inspired Pool make it 11 PL wins out of 17 over City at home. You have to go back to a Nicolas Anelka brace in May, 2003 for City’s solitary PL win on the red half of Merseyside.
Prior to that and it’s way back to Boxing Day 1981 when John Bond presided over an unlikely 3-1 win over the likes of Dalglish, Hansen, Rush and Souness, with goals from Asa Hartford, Kevin Bond and Kevin Reeves.
If Liverpool are energised in their usual fashion they will play at a fast tempo and press City in the midfield. It will need Yaya Toure, David Silva and Fernandinho to be at their best to counter and have the Reds rocking back on their heels.
It’ll be interesting to see if Pellegrini opts for the flair of Samir Nasri over the work rate of James Milner in that midfield battle.
Milner provides stronger defensive cover than the Frenchman but City’s boss could play both if he goes for a 4-5-1 formation with a lone striker, be that Aguero, Negredo or Dzeko.
On a day when red and sky blue supporters will unite in paying their respects to the 96 victims of Hillsborough, it’s difficult not to draw parallels when City played United six years ago on the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster.
The 3,000 travelling supporters earned the tag of ‘The Impeccables’ as they observed the minute-long silence to remember those who perished.
Similarly, Sunday April 13, 2014, will be a day when supporters, irrespective of tribal colours and club allegiances, come together to honour the memory of those who, like themselves simply went to watch a game of football…only never to return.
Football pales into insignificance when set against the loss of human life – that’s as true today as it was back in 1989, and will forever be so.
It doesn’t however, diminish the importance of a game that will go a long way in determining the identity of the next champions of England.
City need to distinguish themselves on the terraces, but disengage from the raw sensitivities of the day on the pitch, in the same manner as they did in beating United 2-1 back on February 10, 2008.
If Vincent Kompany and Manuel Pellegrini can emulate the achievements of their predecessors, Richard Dunne and Sven Goran Eriksson, it will be a priceless three-point haul, mission accomplished and a second Premier League title well on the way back to the Etihad.
By David Walker
On this the 25th anniversary of the harrowing events at Hillsborough, it behoves Read But Never Red to pay its respects and extend sympathy and empathy to the families and friends of the 96 victims.
It must be hoped that after a quarter-of-a-century of intolerable pain and suffering, justice is finally delivered for those left behind, and that those who presided over the harrowing events and subsequent shameful cover up, are finally held accountable.