An Irish rhythm to Mersey beat

Tomorrow’s meeting of Liverpool and Manchester City is probably the most eagerly anticipated Premier League game for neutrals this season, as England’s two highest-scoring teams meet in a game which will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the 2014 title race.

An Irish rhythm to Mersey beat

With 90 goals, Liverpool have six more than City, but the latter’s goals-against record, at 29, is considerably meaner than their opponents’, at 40. The stats alone, therefore, point to a goal-fest at Anfield which, given football’s proven ability to confound expectations and make fools of us all, suggests everyone should pile on at odds of 7/4 for a scoreless draw.

Unlikely, perhaps, but then you’d have gotten longer odds on Liverpool being top of the table with five games to go back at the start of the season, when Luis Suarez was contemplating a big chunk being taken out of his campaign and Steven Gerrard was talking about a top- four finish as the height of the team’s ambition.

Retaining the services of Suarez — and, in return, being handsomely repaid with his goal haul and stunning assists — was perhaps the first sign that Liverpool really meant business. Subsequently getting the best out of both Suarez and Daniel Sturridge was another piece of fine man-management by Brendan Rodgers which, allied to the manager’s brand of progressive football and tactical flexibility, set in place the keystones for an unexpected but wonderfully thrilling shot at the title.

While bringing out the best in the likes of Jordan Henderson and Phillipe Coutinho, Rodgers has also been clever enough to use Steven Gerrard to maximum effect, reinventing him as a deep-lying midfielder from where his booming quarter-back passes make light of his diminishing mobility to supply the strikers with ample ammunition. Gerrard also brings vast experience and composure to the cause — most valuably in his ice-cool penalty conversion rate — as well as that kind of increasingly rare one-man, one-club, hometown passion which not only finds a raucous roar of identity on the Kop but one which can intimidate the opposition almost as much as it galvanises the Reds.

The commemoration this weekend of the Hillsborough disaster will serve only to intensify the emotional tension around tomorrow’s game, a reminder that even the winning of a league title after a gap of 24 years is not, to paraphrase Bill Shankly, a matter of life and death.

For us greybeards, it’s still kind of hard to believe that the last time Liverpool lifted the championship trophy, Hillsborough was only a year in the past and Italia ‘90 still a few weeks away. John Aldridge had left Anfield at the start of that last title-winning season but, as someone who’d revered Roger Hunt from the Kop when he was a boy, the former Irish international has never lost his supporter’s passion for the club.

It took more than a few by surprise then when Aldo put Gerrard ahead of Kenny Dalglish in his all-time Liverpool Top 10, ‘King Kenny’ having been, by common consent, the greatest of the many greats to have touched the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign. But Aldridge made a good point explaining his choice: Dalglish, he said, had always been surrounded by the highest quality at Liverpool whereas, for many seasons, Steven Gerrard had to compensate for the sheer ordinariness of many of those around him.

For that reason, among others, the neutrals will again have no reason to complain should Stevie G end up lifting the Premier League trophy before time runs out on his long and distinguished career on Merseyside.

At the very least, Liverpool are virtually assured of a place in the Champions League next season where, in an unlikely double-coup for the city, they could be joined by Everton, now just one point behind fourth-placed Arsenal and with a trip to free-falling Sunderland next up today.

In 1990, John Aldridge and Jim Beglin had not long left Anfield and the tricolour was still strongly represented in Liverpool’s title-winning team by Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton. But 24 years on, it’s to the other side of Stanley Park that Irish eyes now look for hope and inspiration, with Goodison playing host to Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Aiden McGeady and, soon to return if all continues to go well, Darron Gibson.

The admirable Roberto Martinez might be pushing Brendan Rodgers hard for the Manager of the Year gong but the now much-maligned David Moyes still deserves credit for shaping and bequeathing the core of a fine side (not to mention taking Marouane Fellaini out of the equation, sez you). Indeed, one of Moyes’ last acts as Toffees boss was to award Coleman an extended contract, the latest benefits of which were evident in the Irish international’s scintillating display against Arsenal last week which had YouTubers swooning and Martinez hailing him as “one of the best full-backs in the world”.

Liverpool FC have always commanded huge Irish support and, should they finally end their title drought this season, the achievement will be widely celebrated in this country. But if the blue side of this most Irish of English cities can deliver Champions League football, the benefits for Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane could be hugely significant. Either way, the quality of Mersey has been one of the most fascinating stories of a compelling season and one which still has some dramatic plot twists to come.

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