Liam Mackey.


Gloves are off as Premier League is living up to the hype

One of the nice things about Graeme Souness’ stubborn refusal to sugarcoat his punditry is that he sometimes seems to forget who his lords and masters are, writes Liam Mackey.

Gloves are off as Premier League is living up to the hype

One of the nice things about Graeme Souness’ stubborn refusal to sugarcoat his punditry is that he sometimes seems to forget who his lords and masters are, writes Liam Mackey.

At half-time at the Etihad on Thursday night, he told his Sky Sports audience that television, with its necessary focus on the ball, couldn’t possible convey the full intensity of the unfolding clash between Manchester City and Liverpool, as individual battles raged and energy was expended all over the pitch.

To a large extent, that is true of all football matches. The television cameras can’t be beaten for forensic, slo-mo, multiple replay scrutiny of key moments but you really have to be there to appreciate how player movement off the ball can be crucial in creating and closing down space, developing patterns of play and, ultimately, even shaping the outcome of a game. TV is great for detail but a seat in the stand offers the bigger picture along, of course, with the visceral experience of full-body exposure to the big match atmosphere, something which a comfy spot on the sofa can never hope to replicate.

But say this for the crowd at the Etihad on Thursday: they seemed to determined to make themselves heard around the world. Even before a ball was kicked, there was such a febrile mood inside the stadium that you could feel the tingle even in the privacy of your own sitting room. This was something as new as it was welcome. So accustomed had City fans become to the almost nonchalant way in which their team could boss most games and comfortably dispense with inferior opposition, that the prevailing soundtrack at the Etihad had turned into something more like a purr than a roar, the faithful as self-satisfied as a television chef. (Ever heard one taste one of his or her creations and declare that it’s anything other than simply divine? No, you haven’t).

But the shock of three defeats and a seven-point swing in favour of Liverpool had radically altered things, the Blue Mooners tapping into an unfamiliar underdog passion that, from the first whistle, was reflected on the pitch in the way in which City pressed high and hunted in packs, forcing Liverpool into a succession of nervous errors.

City’s warrior spirit was personified by the all-action Fernandinho, one minute spraying an expansive pass to Raheem Sterling, the next stopping Mo Salah in his tracks. But Liverpool weathered the early storm and, in the 17th minute, found their feet and finesse to cut straight through the heart of the City defence, an exquisite Salah-Firmino-Salah exchange setting up Sane for the close shave of the season, as his shot came back off the post before - having almost scored a slapstick own goal off his own ‘keeper, John Stones somehow cleared off the line with millimetres to spare and Salah needing only the faintest of touches to profit from the chaos.

Such fine margins would ultimately define the night. The tiny gap in which Sergio Aguero’s thunderous shot beat Alisson at his near post to give City the lead. The hair’s breadth with which Danilo got caught under the ball, allowing Andy Robertson to tee up Firmino for the equaliser. The snap decision which saw referee Anthony Taylor show yellow red rather than red to Vincent Kompany for a despairing lunge of a tackle on Salah after a sloppy ball from Stones. One handed saves by both goalkeepers late on. And the ultra-fine precision with which Sane’s angled finish found the inside of the far post to seal the victory for the home side.

But the bigger picture was of an utterly compelling contest which more than lived up to its billing as a clash of titans, with both sides showing the character required to overcome setbacks — City’s opener, Liverpool’s equaliser — and, even with the home side having the better of things overall, the outcome still hanging in the balance right through five breathless minutes of time added on.

And, of course, the result was the one which all neutrals hoped for, a City win slashing what could have been a 10-point gap to just four, with almost half the season still to go. The FA Cup now offers a bit of breathing space before battle resumes in the Premier League and, though Liverpool retain their lead at the top, the weight of short-term pressure will be firmly on the shoulders of Jurgen Klopp’s men to see how they cope with the shock to the system of losing their unbeaten record and against their biggest rivals.

A trip to Chris Hughton’s Brighton beckons next Saturday which means that City will know exactly where they stand when they take on Wolves two days later. But now that we know there are no invincibles in this Premier League, all bets are cancelled beyond the expectation — or, at least, the hope — that it remains nip and tuck from here through to May. As with the nation, so with the nation’s favourite sport: it could even turn out to be the case that Europe will have a decisive effect, for good or ill, on domestic affairs. Much as the Anfield faithful still cherish the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’, no right-thinking Koppite would surely swap a first title in 29 years for another night of European glory. But, for City, the Champions League has to be the supreme goal, and if and to what extent that weighty consideration impacts on the defence of their title will be fascinating to see.

So there’s all that and — almost forgotten in the focus on a two-horse race — the fact that Spurs are currently just six points off the leaders and two behind City, well within striking range if they can find that elusive consistency.

“The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong,” Damon Runyon observed, “but that’s the way to bet.” Sound advice there from the sage but then he never had to call a Premier League race as finely balanced as this one.

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