Four Horses, Final Furlong

Four Horses, Final Furlong

The Premier League has seen an open and exciting title race this season. Made all the better by the absence of Manchester United. That’s not just a dislike for the Red Devils speaking, but with them out of the picture it’s opened up another slot at the top. That gap has been filled emphatically by Liverpool, the rulers of old. This weekend sees the two North West teams involved in the hunt for the title face North London opposition, both of whom appear to have a salvage operation underway.

It has been refreshing to see Liverpool back on the prowl for league honours again. The neutral in me recalls a childhood watching them rule over England in dominant fashion. Back then my City were also rans. I didn’t love them any less but people weren’t queuing up to jump on that particular bandwagon. Elvis, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were my favourite bands but they weren’t on Top of the Pops so, with much regret in hindsight, I donned a Bros t-shirt and accepted popular culture. Children are fickle. That young side of me did admire the Liverpool teams of old. The football Top of the Pops – Match of the Day – would play goals from the Red Men like hits from the charts. They were hard not to notice. That same neutral head would find some comfort in Liverpool winning this year, if it’s not to be City, because it’d mean Steven Gerrard getting a Premier League medal. He’s been a world class player for England (about the only one of his generation) and loyal to his club.

This season Liverpool are being noticed once again. And with good reason. Manchester City started the season in explosive fashion. After a few shaky weeks when playing away they started to overturn teams at will. It seemed conceivable they’d score at least four every week, and if you scored four they might score six. But at the business end of the season it’s the red half of Merseyside that has come on strong. After an anxious finish to Sunderland they face a Spurs side spluttering through uncertainty. A win here will more than likely end Tottenham’s hope for a top four finish – Everton are looking a better bet right now – and could spell the end of Tim Sherwood’s reign. I’m not suggesting he’d be sacked now, but the war kitty won’t be his by the time pre-season comes around.

It’s amusing Brendan Rodgers mentioned the pressure on Spurs after spending heavily when in fact Liverpool have a higher net loss than Tottenham in regard to transfer fees, not just this season, but around £70M since 2010. It appears the Northern Irishman learnt how to play mind games – by talking tripe – from his former mentor Mourinho, who has spent the year doing a good impression of the village idiot. Make no mistake: There is an immense pressure on Liverpool now. History weighs heavy with expectation. So far they are coping. If they defeat Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City at home they’ll stand an excellent chance of bringing the first Premier League title to Anfield.

Attempting to prevent a Merseyside title win are the two sides that meet Saturday tea time: Arsenal and Manchester City. The Gunners are now the outsiders for the crown. I admire the way Wenger has maintained top four finishes on a tight budget while they paid for the new stadium but they continue to fall short. All his trophies came during the first five hundred games of his tenure. How many more hundreds will he get before the fans demand a different approach? He claims the race is still on – and with his side only six points from Chelsea he has every right – but he’ll have one eye over his shoulder now. It’s almost inconceivable that in a season where they were title race pace setters they could finish in a Europa League spot.

They’d have good company there as the reigning champions, Manchester United, look to the high ground, baffled. The most exciting part of their weekend will be a plane flying over The Theatre of Dreams trailing a banner that will read: The Wrong One – Moyes Out, highlighting just how bad the nightmare has become.

Pellegrini’s men have maths on their side, as every rival manager is happy to point out, but the games in hand are a buffer for mistakes more than certainty for points. It’s likely all the teams in the chase will drop silly points in the remaining games, City just have a way to lessen the impact if they do. Taking the three points at Old Trafford in such an easy fashion will give them a welcome boost, a repeat at Arsenal will set them up nicely. You’d fancy them in home games to Southampton and Sunderland in the coming weeks but they mustn’t overlook anyone now. The early season dazzle has dimmed a little but a new steelier centre is evident. This City team has the backbone to grind out a title.

As for Chelsea: well, I won’t say too much because their manager does that for them. But don’t be fooled by his claims the extra games in Europe will play a factor. Winning becomes habit forming and boosts confidence. A good showing against a tricky PSG side will push them on, not drain them. They currently sit top of the pile and must wear a favourites tag without trying to pretend otherwise.

Wherever this year’s trophy goes it will be a season we can look back on with fond memories, a four horse race to the end. That’s four horses, no little dogs. I’m not sure where the dogs are, I’ll ask a United fan, they seem to have gone there.

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