The trouble with being pretenders to City’s throne in Premier League title race

<span>That’s what <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> will do to you.</span><span>Composite: Guardian Picture Desk</span>
That’s what Manchester City will do to you.Composite: Guardian Picture Desk


It speaks volumes about the title race and the exacting standards to follow that Manchester City have set anyone hoping to beat them in it, that both Liverpool and Arsenal’s largely unexpected defeats on Sunday have been labelled in some quarters as “chokes”. While the sight of both sides blowing a one-point lead over the course of 24 hours is never going to be up there with those of Greg Norman throwing away an apparently unlosable Masters or Jan Novotna mentally disintegrating after double-faulting in what should have been the knockings of a Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf, there were several tell-tale signs at both Anfield and the Emirates that, even though all three title-chasers still have six games to play, the players and fans of both sides felt deep down that a marvellous opportunity had been blown for another season at least.

On Merseyside, where Liverpool lost their first home league game in 18 months, the faces of assorted players looked more haunted than an entire series worth of amusement parks on Scooby-Doo. They went down to a remarkable goal scored by a Crystal Palace team looking for all the world like they were engaged in a warm-up rondo down by the corner flag and had invited a handful of Liverpool mascots to engage in a futile chase of the ball. Meanwhile in north London, those responsible for Arsenal’s late capitulation against Villa were forced to watch their visitors celebrate in front of a jubilant away end while enduring the mournful silence of at least 40,000 empty red seats that had been vacated by the club’s devoted supporters the split-second Leon Bailey’s opener hit the net. With City now two points clear at the top, there’s still plenty of football to play and a sporting chance City could still slip up but one gets the feeling all affiliated to Liverpool and Arsenal are hoping, rather than expecting Pep’s Champions to make another boo-boo now they’ve been let off the hook.

Famously spiky in the face of even the mildest criticism, Jürgen Klopp magnanimously declared in his post-match interviews that his team deserved whatever brickbats were coming their way on the back of their third uncharacteristically poor performance in eight days. “The criticism in these moments is completely fine,” he said through gritted but dazzling teeth. “It is absolutely right. It is all about how we deal with it. The first half we didn’t deal with it but in the second half we pulled ourselves together and should have won the game.” Having gone behind to Eberechi Eze’s splendid goal in the 14th minute, Liverpool certainly had enough time to turn things around. “I felt like I was out there for a year,” said Palace goalkeeper Dean Henderson, of the second-half onslaught his team faced. “I didn’t think it was ever going to end.”

Compared to Liverpool and Arsenal, City faced a comparatively straightforward task the previous day, hosting a Luton side whose trademark pluckiness was further enhanced before kick-off when the team-sheets revealed it had been put together using sticky-back plastic, bandages and bits of string. And it was telling that even on the back of a 5-1 defeat, Rob Edwards’s make-do-and-mend side probably put in a better weekend shift than the two pretenders to City’s throne. Of course if anything served as a portent for what was to come for Arsenal and Liverpool the next day, it was the sight of City’s opening goal – an errant Erling Haaland volley being diverted into the opposition goal after smashing a hapless bystander in the face. In the race for the Premier League title, everyone has a plan to beat Pep until they get a football in the mouth.


“Ninety-seven people unlawfully killed, not one person held accountable, how do you think we feel? We had to give up 30 years of our lives to fighting, otherwise they would have got away with it. It’s the worst scandal ever. All those lives lost, then we had the police against us, the media at that time, the government, we had a hell of a fight on our hands” – Margaret Aspinall, the last chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group whose son James was one of 97 people unlawfully killed on 15 April 1989, speaks out about the painful lack of accountability that families are still having to endure 35 years on. Read David Conn’s powerful report here.


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