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Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Race is on

James Martin wonders whether Liverpool can hold on to win their first Premier League title?

When the editor commissioned a piece on whether Liverpool can win the Premier League, he phrased it so as to ask whether Liverpool will “slip up”. This exemplifies the eagerness with which rival fans await to seize on any mistake from Klopp’s men. Steven Gerrard’s infamous loss of footing five years ago is still glorified on the Chelsea terraces – the Blues finished third that season, behind Liverpool. It was Manchester City for whom the slip opened the door, and it is the oil-funded mega-club that the people are willing on once more as their collective champions against Liverpool.

This, however, is not the Liverpool of five years ago. The current table shows just ten goals conceded – this is a metamorphosis from the team that shipped fifty in 2013/14. Firepower at the other end has not been sacrificed; the departure of Suarez and decline of Sturridge has been mitigated through smart recruitment and coaching since Klopp took the helm. More than that, the team is truly collective this time: it is not solely reliant on one or two talismans. There are naturally standout members of the squad – Van Dijk is a colossus at one end, while Salah is a revelation at the other – but the side does not fall apart without them. This is a Liverpool team with both the depth and the quality of champions.

Liverpool, though, are not the only side to have undergone change in the last five years. In many other campaigns a team of their quality would have strolled to the title, but they must contend with the squad that last season were lauded by many as the best the league has ever seen. This title was not bestowed without reason: a world-class coach backed by effectively unending funds is a powerful combination, and the results have been, at time, mesmeric. De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, David Silva: never has such creativity been assembled in one place. This guarantees service for Aguero, a consummate finisher who can now surely be considered a bona fide Premier League great. Vincent Kompany undoubtedly shares this status, yet he is not a certain starter ahead of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte. In goal, Ederson possesses all of the characteristics desirable in a modern keeper. There are still weak points: the system’s reliance on an ageing Fernandinho was exposed during his December absence through injury, and the full-backs are more adept going forward than they are at dealing with pressure. Nonetheless, this is substantially the same group that broke records for goals, points and wins last season – it is a formidable side that simply cannot be written off, even more so since their 2-1 win over Liverpool.

The fact that anyone can even compete with City would appear to be a victory for the league, particularly when the competitor is a side who in the not-so-distant past were replacing Luis Suarez with Lambert and Benteke. Rewind another few years, and Roy Hodgson was at the helm declaring Liverpool to be in a relegation battle. Surely this is a beacon of hope – good business and good coaching can take a club to the very top, even in the face of a squad funded by immense riches. And yet, while most fans would agree in principle, there is one sticking point: Liverpool. Away from the banks of the Mersey, the joy of getting carried away has been lost. Fans brand as “unbearable” those who eulogise about their team, who compose ballads about its achievements, who forge their very identity around its ethos. They point to the as-yet empty trophy cabinet under Klopp, and do not comprehend the notion of Liverpool fans enjoying the journey despite having not reached the destination. They fear the loss of this last remaining stick with which they can beat Klopp’s side more than they fear the monopolisation of the league.

As such, City are being willed on by the majority. They might get what they want: there is no shortage of quality at the Etihad, and the sheer amount of class at Guardiola’s disposal might yet prevail. Liverpool fans, however, have every right to believe that this won’t be the case – this will be their year. The forwards took all the plaudits in their run to Kyiv last year; Salah, Mane and Firmino are now supported by at least something of the strength in depth boasted by City. An end to the 30-year wait for the title is tangible. Even if it is not to be, however, the songs will not be silenced. The articles won’t stop. The fiercely loyal, socialist identity of the club and the city will not be shaken. Manchester City, the unlikely people’s champions, might stop Liverpool, but they will never shut them up.

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