And now for something totally unique: Manchester City v Liverpool. The earliest title decider ever seen. Well, not quite, of course. The pre-match heat, so intense and febrile, begot a match sizzling with fervour and movement, but when the mists cleared, we found that we’re all still gripped by the icy fingers of the first week of January.
Depending which reliable news feed you feast on these days, we had been told that “City have to win dirty”, “For the first time in a year a game City absolutely must win” and even a highly unusual take that “Liverpool can complete the double over City with a win at the Etihad”.
Must have been the excitement of the moment that allowed that particular writer to forget City had drawn at Anfield. Still, you get the picture. People were getting severely worked up.
In the end, there was no time for winning dirty. City’s fast-flowing machine returned to the tracks and the hitherto unbeaten league leaders had, by the end, been out-smarted for the first time. City, relying on defending seldom seen at the Etihad – at least from the home side – saw, in turn, a post come to their rescue, then good fortune, then pure slapstick.
This pulsing, vibrating match gave us everything. Liverpool are no mugs, remember. Without a defeat all season, a proud reflection of the times of yore, when they rode roughshod over the rest of the league, year after year.
However, here’s the present day rub for Klopp’s men: To have dropped nine points all season but to see yourselves only four points clear is at this stage unprecedented. Every single team since 1981-82 with at least 52 points after 21 games (Liverpool have 54), has gone on to win the league, but every one of those title winners has had a lead of between five and 15 points.
Liverpool’s lead is now down to four points. It was 10 last week. And they have hardly put a foot wrong. Unprecedented statistics are all the more fascinating precisely because they leave us with an unpredictable future. What happens next? Well, nobody can quite say and that is exactly how it should be.
What now plays out in those Liverpool minds after a lusty evening in East Manchester? All the harrumphing and whinnying about the magisterial romp towards their first league win in 29 years now looks a little premature. With City regaining shape, that vivacious passing returning, the incredible energy of their pressing winding itself up for the second half of the season, Liverpool could be forgiven for feeling a little panicky, a little pressed, or, as here, more than a little compressed.
The red shirts attempted to swarm, but found an opponent truly up for the fight, backed by a bellowing, ferociously partisan crowd. All great champions react testily to hearing doubts aired about their capabilities and here were City with their dander well and truly up.
But City showed us they could also deliver Keystone Kops football when needed. Stones smacking a clearance into his own goalkeeper, then having to hook it off the line with a millimetre to spare was one. Others followed later as City’s defending went from precision to paracetamol.
And in among all those flailing limbs stood one man, frail of build, but stout of heart. Blocking, flipping, nudging and cajoling, Fernandinho was everywhere, providing one of the truly great Premier League era midfield displays. In his absence, City had been lumpen and predictable. In his presence, they were transformed. Here he freed the runners to work their magic in the safe knowledge that the guardian of the Big Key was sitting, holding everything together somewhere behind them where the tackles were blurring into one big mess of limbs.
Other odd things were happening. Two goals in Liverpool’s net for the first time this season. Thoroughbreds Aguero and Bernardo closing the gaps like unfed Jack Russells.
So, Liverpool’s chance of a 10-point lead is reworked into a paltry-looking four. A month earlier the gap had been five points – in City’s favour – but this is clearly a title fight with a difference.
The Premier League has two very special sides leading the way this season. They are dragging us into uncharted waters with their high-handed brilliance and leaving us with the tantalising prospect of more high drama before this duel of duels is finally done and dusted.