Fashioning narratives out of the week’s big big game
The poor old FA Cup can’t catch a break. Along it arrives, to keep football in a holding cell overnight to calm things down, just as a bona fide title race has been declared on. As debris still flies from the blowing wide open of what almost became a ‘big ask’.
So instead of bingeing right onto another episode, we must wait for next week’s show. It has all been postponed: The mind games and controvassy. The scripts you can’t write. The refusals to look beyond the next game. The how bigs. The big bigs. The turning up the heat and responding in the best possible way. The cranking up the pressure and buckling under it. The results business. The points over performances. But what a performance. Of champions. But still just three points. A big big three points. Three precious points.
How can a place in the hat for the fourth round compete?
For once, the TV networks can’t be accused of over-hyping this one. Though RTÉ did tweet that Thursday night’s fixture ‘may just be the biggest game in the history of sport’, presumably by way of bantz, though in Rugby Country you can never be entirely sure.
Vincent Kompany, reeling like a man who had seen an Autumn International played at the Somme, told us afterwards it was “beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed”, but it was the managers who had set the tone.
In a rally of pass the favouritism we will grow weary of in the months ahead, Pep had pronounced Liverpool the best in Europe, Klopp returning serve by anointing City the world’s greatest.
Neither side has yet banked the prizes to deserve those plaudits, of course. And while Thursday’s match delivered the febrile atmosphere to match a game with the whole world at stake, there were aspects of both sides’ performance to suggest the gaffers have taken on board the Premier League’s fabled delusions of grandeur.
Now it is up to the Best League in the World to reclaim some of the unpredictability that built the brand. To supply the banana skins that will give the race circuit its twists and turns, its chicanes.
Leicester and Crystal Palace have stepped up lately, to give Wolves a dig out with the fading ‘anybody can beat anybody’ mantle.
If a few others get involved, maybe Tottenham are still in the hunt, a possibility complicated by the fact Tottenham cannot know they are in the hunt, to remain in the hunt.
Who will cope with the run-in better? Sky or BT. All of the networks will give neutrals the kind of experience they are used to in everyday life, surrounded by Liverpool fans in a state of high delirium.
It will take a generation to supply City legends for the punditocracy now that the Franny Lees and Mike Summerbees have been retired to Proper Football Man Soccer Saturday cameos. So Joleon Lescott is the low-key beneficiary of tokenism while Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton dispute every Champions League free-kick against the Reds on RTÉ and Steve McManaman shrieks for penalties on BT.
To be fair to Sky’s cast of Liverpool redbloods — Kelly Cates, Jamie Carragher, and Graeme Souness — they dissected the Vincent Kompany lungegate fairly. It was left to Sky’s old guard to lead the charge for controvassy, with Richard Keys tweeting: “The PGMOL must STOP appointing Anthony Taylor to games involving Manchester clubs. He takes baggage onto the pitch & can’t officiate evenly as a result.”
Beforehand, the managers set their stall out to type; Pep wanted precision in both boxes, Klopp fancied creating ‘organised chaos’ in front of City’s goal.
But when you have Bernardo Silva “stomping around midfield like a Portuguese Glenn Whelan”, as the Guardian put it, and City ‘finding touch’ with panicked clearances long before the end, it’s not straightforward to plot convenient narratives.
Since both sides ‘played like champions’ at various points, the fineness of the margins, 11 millimetres and all that, dominated much of the analysis.
In an All-Ireland final, you’d just put it down to The Savage Hunger.
But what about the fear factor? In the search for an early narrative, Gary Neville detected a rare ‘retreat’ from Pep Guardiola in the shape of Aymeric Laporte at left back.
In victory, that was recast as sensible.
James Milner tweeted the night before of his moral courage — “Top team, tough ground... but no fear” — but his presence alongside Jordan Henderson in what Graeme Souness repeatedly called a “working midfield” was arguably the tell-tale sign of Klopp caution.
“Don’t wait in big games,” was Neville’s advice.
Afterwards Pep was keen to let us know his side had showed no fear, despite there being every reason to be very afraid. City had felt the fear and done it anyway.
Liverpool will get now get opportunities to do likewise.
Can you have a breakout performance at 33? Though most have long come round to the integrality of his role, as late as Tuesday Dunphy and Gilesy were arguing the merits of Fernandinho in the City midfield.
A watching brief while your previously invulnerable team ships a couple of losses does nobody’s CV any harm. But sometimes the less showy talents need to knit together a lifetime’s work in one bravura showcase. This was the Brazilian’s submission for a place in the annals.
Further distancing Sky from the hard sell, Graeme Souness spent half-time on Thursday night advising viewers of the futility of watching games like this on television, so impossible is it to appreciate the intensity on show.
Bernardo, Fernandinho and Liverpool’s trio of “workaholics” underlined just why Cesc Fabregas looks set to wave goodbye to English football today.
A man two years Fernandinho’s junior but long out of time and space in an environment that requires you to run and run. It was also a salutary lesson for a current Arsenal man, Mesut Ozil.
But there’s a certain sadness too that it’s still possible to get by in midfied without the gifts Henderson lacks, but not the engine Cesc never had.
They will be good value, all the same, from here on in, the Liverpool fans.
They maddened themselves into the dead of Friday morning, finding the ball’s shadow had crossed the line, taking solace in a parallel world.
The conspiracy theories are gathering pace as swiftly as the sense of persecution.
“The grass was long. The goalmouths scruffy. Manchester City kept the grass long for Liverpool,” reported The Anfield Wrap website.
The people who found Van Dijk’s tackle against Napoli to be beautifully timed are aghast at Kompany’s savagery.
It is a great added fascination with this race that there is a man at the heart of it so aware the world is watching him, and so conscious of the message he sends with every word and gesture.
It is that instinct for showmanship that presumably persuaded Klopp to wrestle a water bottle from his pocket and regard it fondly when Firmino equalised, presumably to assure his people that yes, their boys have the bottle for this alright.
But the same instincts once led Jurgen to bring his boys to celebrate in front of the Kop after a 2-2 draw at home with West Brom, so we can’t rely on these instincts always being sound.
Already a bad man on Twitter, John Merro, has mocked up a picture of Klopp as Kevin Keegan, loving it if we beat them now.
And, I tell you honestly, you couldn’t rule out Pep going down in his estimation before this is all over.