- Man City finally has the opportunity to play before Liverpool on a Premier League matchday, and while it seems like a minor detail, the order of games gives Pep Guardiola's side a chance to apply pressure in the two-team hunt for the title.
The fixture list is one of those things José Mourinho was always complaining about, insisting it had been stacked against his team. Because his protests were so nakedly self-serving, the tendency was to dismiss the idea. And perhaps that’s the best attitude to have. After all, games have to be played sometime, and there will always be an element of luck in such issues as whether clubs happen to have all their best players available for key ones. But that’s not to say the fixture list doesn’t make a difference.
A fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, had a sense one season that West Ham, the team he supports, kept on playing teams just as they came into form. So he took a crude gauge of form–results in the previous five games–and worked out how much of an issue that was. His conclusion was that if you wanted a league actually to be “fair,” so that there was an overwhelming statistical probability each team would play the same number of teams in form as out of form, a season would have to be 35 years long. Which is something it be borne in mind: the cliché has it that the league table doesn’t lie, but sometimes perhaps it doesn’t tell the whole truth.
Of more immediate concern is the order of games and the fact that this week, for the first time since it beat Liverpool at the Etihad, Manchester City plays its game in a set of fixtures first. Twice, Liverpool has won its match to extend the lead at the top of the table to seven points, and each time City has played with the knowledge that it had to win to stay within touching distance. Just as analysis of penalty shootouts shows that the team who goes first has a 60% chance of winning, so the pressure is greater on the team playing second–providing the one going first wins.
Should City beat Newcastle away on Tuesday–and Newcastle has the second-worst home record of any team in the league–the gap at the top will be down to a single point. Liverpool will be able to feel City’s breath on the back of their necks as it faces Leicester, a bizarrely inconsistent side that has already beaten Manchester City and Chelsea this season, on Wednesday.
And Liverpool is not playing well at the moment. Its four games this year have brought defeat to City in the league, defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup, plus a pair of far-from-convincing league wins. At Brighton, it was oddly flat and won only through a Mohamed Salah penalty. Against Crystal Palace, a defense that had leaked only three goals at Anfield all season suddenly let in three in less than an hour. Liverpool did score four in that game, but with a large dollop of fortune, as two came with the assistance of huge deflections, one thanks to a comical error from Palace’s third-choice goalkeeper, Julian Speroni, and one following a handball in the build-up.
There are two ways of looking at the past month. The positive spin says Liverpool has a seven-point lead, can recuperate during the FA Cup weekends and has exhibited that most vital sign of league champions: the capacity to win while playing poorly. The negative spin says Liverpool is wobbling badly and vulnerable, and that a raft of defensive absences–Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren and Fabinho have all been injured just as Nathaniel Clyne was sent out on loan–threatens to undo its advantage. The situation has been compounded this week by the suspension of James Milner, who could have filled in at right back, after his red card against Palace.
Man City, meanwhile, has followed up the win over Liverpool with six straight wins in all competitions in which time it’s racked up a goal-difference of 28 goals for and none against. After its shaky spell in December, the champion looks remorseless again.
Championships are only occasionally decided in the biggest games. They tend to be won in the margins. If Liverpool does end up claiming the title this season, what will have proved decisive is less its excellence than its ability to scramble together wins, all while City was surprising everybody by slipping up against Leicester and Crystal Palace.
Facing Leicester at Anfield on Wednesday shouldn’t be a major test for Liverpool. The Foxes are in rotten form with serious doubts about Claude Puel’s future as a manager. Man City has another opportunity to play first over the weekend, when it hosts Arsenal Sunday, a day before Liverpool travels to West Ham. If the lead is down to a point in either instance, it will provide a glimpse into Liverpool’s title credentials–and most particularly of its character.