Tis the season to be jolly in the Premier League, and no mistake, writes Liam Mackey.
OK, poor old Jose can’t be feeling too chipper but then he’s not too old and he’s certainly not poor, the sack he got from Man U being decidedly of the Santa variety, with reports suggesting that it cost the club in the region of €25m to show him the door.
And, yes, Pep Guardiola has enjoyed happier festive seasons too but — you read it here first! — his job looks safe enough for the time being and, while he searches for a solution to Man City’s sudden downturn, the rest of us can rejoice in the transformation of the title race from a predicted procession to nail-biting fight to the finish.
Unless, of course, Liverpool turn out to be the side most people thought Man City would be at the start of the season and the league still ends up as a procession, only one led by a team in red rather than one in blue.
Unai Emery even went so far as to suggest that Jurgen Klopp’s men have it in them to be the new Invincibles, a bizarre observation given he delivered it at his pre-match press conference ahead of
Arsenal’s visit to Anfield today.
All that said, the sight of Liverpool as odds-on favourites to win the Premier League still takes a bit of getting used to. Partly that’s to do with the heavy hand of history on the club’s shoulders: not just the fact that, in 2019, it will be a staggering 29 years since they last won the top flight title but also because they’ve been here before, top of the tree at Christmas three times since 1996, and still managed, as we all well know, to let the glittering prize slip from their sweaty grasp.
But probably the bigger reason why doubts persist about Liverpool going all the way is because a lot of people seem to have trouble coming to terms with the idea that Pep’s City might not, after all, be The Greatest Team That English Football Has Ever Seen, a piece of perceived wisdom which, though it has been ripped to shreds by three defeats in four games, will likely persist until such time as conclusive evidence to the contrary materialises.
And that might be as early as next Thursday when Pool travel to the Etihad for what both managers will be going out of their way to avoid describing as a championship six-pointer let alone a title decider. (And which, come to think of it, could even see Spurs emerge as the biggest winners).
There is no mystery about Liverpool’s commanding position: With Virgil van Dijk looking like the new Alan Hansen and Alisson Becker not looking a bit like Loris Karius, their defensive solidity means they are no longer likely to sabotage their attacking potency with self-destructive howlers at the back.
But what’s really making this Premier League season such a joy for neutrals everywhere is that the top five — Liverpool, Spurs, City, Chelsea, and Arsenal — are all sides you would happily pay to watch going forward.
And then there’s the team in sixth place, Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho’s departure might belatedly have put everyone — not excluding himself — out of their misery at Old Trafford but, even allowing for the familiar bounce which often comes with a change of manager, it still sticks in the craw somewhat to see the overnight chalk to cheese transformation in the level of performance on the pitch which has followed immediately in his wake.
Mourinho might have lost the dressing room but the players should never have lost their professional pride — and commitment to the fans, each other, and the club — to the extent that was so dismally evident in the 3-1 capitulation to Liverpool which finally sealed the manager’s fate.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that a happy training ground does make for happy players — something Jurgen Klopp always seems to have instinctively understood — and if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can keep fuelling the feelgood factor, United have enough quality in their ranks to have a decisive say in the outcome of the title race. They won’t win it themselves, of course, but if they can spoil the party for either Liverpool or Man City, the Stretford End will still be able to look back on a tumultuous season with a degree of satisfaction.
But United won’t be the only spoilsports. City’s two most recent conquerors, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, are classic examples of sides who, when they opt to take their courage in both hands, discover that the reward can be well worth the risk.
The absence of Fernandinho in the holding midfield role has obviously proved costly for City but it still takes a team of attacking intent and with ambitions well beyond mere damage limitation to make the most of the champions’ few vulnerabilities. In the effervescent Wilfried Zaha, Palace have a player who knows no way of playing other than to take on the man in front of him while, in a game against a manifestly superior side, it always helps when you can turn a shot to nothing into a goal for the ages, as Andros Townsend did with his sensational volley.
A resurgent Leicester duly followed suit, coming from behind to beat City 2-1, in what was almost a textbook example of how winning breeds confidence for one side while losing deepens self-doubt for another.
Speaking of the Foxes, while it’s hard to conceive of how anything could ever come close to matching Leicester’s astonishing title success in 2016, the thrilling unpredictability of this season is seeing it shape up to be one of the best in Premier League history. And if, as a bonus, Claudio Ranieri can keep Fulham up, well, it might even still feel a bit like Christmas in May.