Squeaky bum time all the time

John Aldridge scores from the penalty spot during the Sean Cox Fundraising match at Aviva Stadium last night. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

All eyes might be on Liverpool and Manchester because of the two horse nature of the Premier League title race but the also-rans from London could yet prove pivotal to the outcome.

Spurs have already done their bit. 

Different competition, of course, but their deserved first leg Champions League victory will have shaken Pep Guardiola and his team, not just because these serial winners are so unaccustomed to finding themselves behind at the final whistle but also because it was a rare occasion when the intensity of Tottenham’s approach meant City were almost unrecognisable at times as the side which regularly slices and dices the opposition.

London can have an even more direct say tomorrow, and not just at Anfield, with Manchester City having to travel to Crystal Palace in the early game, the result of which will be known before Liverpool kick off against Chelsea. 

In Dublin for last night’s Sean Cox fund-raising game at the Aviva, Ian Rush was relishing the double-header. 

“If Palace can get something against Man City, it would be a massive incentive for Liverpool,” he said.

But, regardless of what happens at Selhurst Park, it’s the heavyweight clash of red and blue which tops the bill. 

Liverpool v Manchester United and the Merseyside derby can boast more of an English classico heritage but, in the years since Roman Abramovich fetched up in Stamford Bridge and the league trophy was last seen in Anfield, the bitter rivalry which has developed between Liverpool and Chelsea has made up a lot of ground on the traditional blockbusters.

So when the stadium fills up, there’ll be quite a few relatively young phantoms knocking about, with the Kop happy to recall occasions like the night when, amid a ferocious atmosphere, Liverpool rocked Chelsea with that Luis Garcia ghost goal en route to winning the Champions League while, if they can make themselves heard above the din of the home support, travelling fans will be no less gleefully reminding everyone about that slip and Demba Ba this time five years ago.

“And don’t forget Chelsea tried to sign Steven Gerrard and he nearly went there,” Rush reminded us when we spoke on Thursday. 

“It’s become a rivalry because Liverpool have their history but haven’t achieved what Chelsea have in recent times. 

"But it’s a little bit different now and I think the Liverpool supporters will let the Chelsea supporters know that.”

Except, of course, that it’s still all there to lose for Liverpool who must not only avoid another slip up of their own but also need City to suffer one in the games remaining.

“Every game they play now is like a Cup Final,” said Rush. “I just look at it that every game they play is a game less left to play. And they’re still winning. 

You can say they’re not playing great but it doesn’t matter if they’re winning.

The legendary striker said he knows exactly what Mo Salah was going through before he ended his dry spell with that superb solo effort against Southampton. 

“When I first started playing for Liverpool I think it was seven games before I scored my first goal,” he said. 

“There were other times when I went five or six games without a goal. Sometimes you try too hard when you start thinking about it. 

"Sometimes you’ve got to be a little selfish and that little bit of luck will come in the end. The goal against Southampton was fantastic. 

"You’re watching it, shouting for him to pass and he doesn’t — and he scores. Mane and Firmino are playing well but Mo getting back amongt the goals could be the deciding thing in winning the league.”

Worryingly for Liverpool, however, Eden Hazard is back in the groove too, although tomorrow he will be up against a rearguard marshalled by the man Phil Babb believes could be on his way to becoming one of the best defenders the game has seen. 

However, the ex-Liverpool and Ireland international reckons the biggest responsibility for shackling the Belgian at Anfield won’t rest with Virgil Van Dijk.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a one v one because predominantly Hazard starts on the left and drifts in,” he said. 

“Saying that, the goal he scored on Monday night when he went through the middle and took about six players out— then Van Dijk will certainly have his work cut out to stop that. But, no, I don’t think Hazard v Van Dijk will be a key battle. 

"I think Hazard v Alexander-Arnold or James Milner or whoever plays on that right-hand side probably will. But also Fabinho will have a big role to play because he’ll have to snuff out in front of the back four.

“Chelsea have some good players, but we as a team at Anfield have been fantastic this year. We have not conceded many goals and we have snuffed out some of the best strikers in the Champions League, the likes of Mbappe and Neymar. So hopefully we can snuff Hazard out.”

Chelsea supporters have long regarded Sarriball as Sorryball and, even with their team’s recent resurgence, the manager looks like someone operating on borrowed time. 

Not so at Anfield where, for Babb, the resilience Liverpool have shown in the run-in — still digging out results even when their swash appeared to be in danger of buckling — is a direct reflection of the drive Klopp has brought to the club.

“He’s a genuine man and that’s what the players buy into because he’s genuine in what he says and what he demands,” said Babb. 

Deep down there’s the heart of a lion and a winner and he’s trying to promote that with his players as well.

"The art of management is the relationship with your players and getting them to run through a brick wall. 

"Modern players are a little bit more fragile than we were, so managing them and getting players that maybe are on the fringes to perform to a high level, he does that. 

"You would expect some players to maybe throw their toys out of the pram, but they don’t. They want to play for him and they are all desperate to pull the shirt on.” 

And yet still probably not half as desperate as the faithful are to end the drought.

Tomorrow has a crunch feel about it but then, at Anfield these days, it’s squeaky bum time all the time.

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