With FA Cup semi-final commitments for four clubs reducing the Premier League schedule to just six games, the significant result of the weekend happened on Friday evening when Liverpool came back from an early Shane Long goal to put Southampton away 3-1 and regain top spot. Jürgen Klopp’s men have now won seven out of the last eight games in which they have conceded first and are showing a level of resilience that will be vital if they are to secure the club’s first title win for nearly three decades.
With Manchester City otherwise engaged, making relatively easy work of Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday evening, the win at St Mary’s put Liverpool back on top in the race that seems to change leaders each and every week, although as we seem to be reminded every time it is mentioned, they have of course played a game more.
City’s progression to their second of the two domestic finals, having already bagged the League Cup, has sparked further talk of a potential historic quadruple for Pep Guardiola’s side, or indeed a quintet if the Catalan super coach has his way and we count the Community Shield as a major trophy. On Tuesday morning City stood just twelve games away from this never before realised achievement…and then they went to Spurs in the Champions League.
My own football-watching commitments following Leyton Orient in their pursuit of their own double meant that I only saw the very end of the match, however there have been a number of accusations, and not for the first time in his trophy-laden career, of Guardiola overthinking his tactics, attempting to be too clever with the way he deployed his team if you will.
We need only think back four years to the near-suicidal set-up he opted for on his return to the Camp Nou with Bayern Munich, in which he picked just three defenders and went man-for-man against the famed MSN (Messi-Suárez-Neymar) attacking trident that rates amongst the most potent attacking lines we have ever seen. That plan lasted all of a quarter of an hour before he realised his rear guard was in very real danger of being completely overrun. Or similarly to how Bayern got hammered by Real Madrid, 4-0, the previous season when he went for an unfamiliar 4-2-4 formation at home. Or to City’s travails at Anfield last season when the decision to field four central midfielders played right into Liverpool’s hands and they were thumped 3-0, effectively ending their Champions League aspirations before the second leg had even kicked off.
On Tuesday evening Guardiola’s tinkering centred less on formation and system and more on personnel: Bernardo Silva’s absence could be explained by an apparent muscular injury picked up in training, but why Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane were left on the bench until the 89th minute, when clearly they were lacking creativity and support for Aguero, is anyone’s guess?
City are only the third team in English football history to still be in contention for a clean sweep this late in the year, for the record: Manchester United in 2008-09 reached the 19th of April before they were eliminated from the FA Cup on penalties by Everton, two years prior to that José Mourinho’s Chelsea had gone even closer until they were knocked out of the Champions League in a shootout by Liverpool on the 1st of May.
It is still not beyond the realms of possibility that City can get back into their quarter final tie through victory in the second leg when hostilities are resumed at the Etihad on Wednesday; yet their seemingly new vulnerability draws into question their credentials to win the one trophy they haven’t won and so desperately crave. Especially given the likelihood that even if they do find a way past Spurs, they will then have to overcome Juventus and one of Liverpool, Barcelona or possibly Manchester United.
City fans won’t thank me for this, but thinking back twenty years to when their bitter cross-city rivals secured their own place in football history with their treble, the stars very much aligned for them that season. Bergkamp’s missed penalty in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park, their current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s heroics in the dying embers of the Champions League Final in Barcelona, seemed like gifts from footballing fate. Beyond the difficulties of securing their first Champions League win, the Premier League title is still far from guaranteed in a race that seems almost certain to go down to the wire.
The business end of the season can be especially cruel to talented teams, momentum a fickle ally, how will hindsight view this hugely expensively assembled Manchester City team if they fail to secure a second championship in successive seasons and the club’s first European Cup? Worse still what if Liverpool beat them to both?