London: The numbers in this title race have been more like cricket scores. A contest where the lead has changed 32 times has produced 178 goals by Manchester City and Liverpool and 189 points for the pair in the first season when two teams passed the 90-mark.
But the stats only partly convey the theatrical intensity of a battle which, for only the eighth time since the Premier League’s formation in 1992, goes down to the last kick. And we could do with a bit of fun at the end of a quiet week in football.
For City, bystanders at the midweek Champions League extravaganza, the weekend is a chance to reclaim the spotlight in pursuit of a domestic treble.
“First of all, it’s a dream to be here,” Guardiola said on the eve of City’s trip to Sussex to face the central-defensive block of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. “I didn’t expect it when we were seven points behind against this Liverpool to be in the position we are now. So, that’s why it’s a dream come true. We’ve shown many things, but now is not the moment to say how well we’ve done — we have the chance to be champions if we win our game and that’s what we have to do.”
On the day Chelsea and Arsenal completed a clean sweep for England in the Champions League and Europa League finals, Premier League clubs began announcing pre-season friendlies for 2019-20. The relentlessness of their ambition (some would call it greed) is breathtaking. Thus the craving for a “39th game” abroad has been satisfied. The 39th will be played in Baku and the 40th in Madrid.
Meanwhile, staggering numbers pepper Sunday’s denouement, in which Australia’s media are asking whether “Socceroo Maty Ryan” (the Brighton goalkeeper) can thwart City’s onslaught and help Liverpool, who need to beat Wolves.
“If we make it back to back [titles] it would be nice, but nothing is going to change too much,” Guardiola says. “The fact we have done incredibly well all season in all competitions and now have two games — two finals — for two titles, we need to be strong mentally, knowing it’s going to be tough.”
In the final days, the last-day decider has been set up by Vincent Kompany’s unlikely thunderbolt against a dangerous Leicester City side on Monday night and a winner for Liverpool at Newcastle from Divock Origi — a foretaste of his heroics against Barcelona. Naturally there will be Premier League trophies at Brighton and Anfield to cover all eventualities — but the bookmakers have already decided. City are 1-10 to defend their title.
Liverpool could be backed at 7-1 to end a near 30-year wait.
Together, City and Liverpool have amassed 60 wins from 74 games, 40 clean sheets and 48,820 passes. At Brighton, City are pursuing their 14th straight win. On September 15, Chelsea were top as everyone swooned for “Sarriball”. But since then two clubs 40 kilometres apart have traded blows without once drawing from the playbook of mind games or Grand National analogies — certainly at first-team or manager level. Neither side has displayed anything like a sufficient weakness for the other to poke a stick at.
How do you psychologically exploit a goal difference of plus-69 (City) or plus-65 (Liverpool)? Even Guardiola’s recent claim that “the media” want Liverpool to be champions was innocuous, and not aimed at Jurgen Klopp or his players. In box office terms, a first Liverpool triumph since 1990 is a better tale, because it involves years of near-misses and pent up angst. Klopp reviving the gilded age of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish has obvious sellable resonances.
Twelve months after City won the league with five games left and finished 19 points clear en route to 100, Liverpool have dragged Guardiola’s team into spellbinding struggle for supremacy. Klopp’s Liverpool, you could argue, have been the making of a City side who needed to be challenged, against a European landscape of easy league wins for Juventus, Barcelona and Paris St-Germain.
All that remains is for the injustice of second place to be meted out to one of two great English teams who made this Premier League season an inspiration and a privilege to watch. There will be real and virtual champions.