IT’S hard work this, isn’t it?
When I was greeted by family at a New Year’s Eve party after the Manchester City game with the question “did you enjoy that?”, I responded with an emphatic “I’m absolutely knackered”. I said the same after spending a full five minutes celebrating Sadio Mane’s winner against Everton by jumping up and down from my seat and running up and down the stairs to embrace various friends and complete strangers, and yesterday’s final whistle saw me exhausted again, this time in the comfort of my own house having spent the last 30 minutes hitting cushions, screaming at the TV and coming up with a range of adjectives for the referee.
My dad has been telling my mum for years that going to watch Liverpool is hard work, so at least we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that it’s always been like this, and I’ve been saying for a while that watching Jürgen Klopp’s Reds could literally cause deaths, but it only dawned on me over the past few days that mine could be one of them if this all continues.
What the Premier League chiefs don’t consider when compiling the Christmas fixture list is that the players might now be elite athletes with supreme levels of fitness, just about able to deal with the demands of a congested fixture list with the assistance of elite level nutritionists, sports science experts, oxygen tanks and rotation, but us supporters are trying to deal with this run of games while eating large quantities of chocolate, biscuits and cakes, and drinking as much alcohol as our overweight bodies can absorb without having the option to be rotated out for a game.
My wife and I spent the two months leading up to Christmas living with my parents while we were waiting to move into a new house. For those interested in stats, the official Opta data for anyone living back in their mum’s house for any period of time shows an average weight gain of one stone per calendar month, with a proportionate decrease in mobility and increase in sweating and panting when climbing stairs. After those two months, followed by the usual Christmas indulgence, I’m struggling to take my wedding ring off for bed at night because the fat has started collating around my fingers having grown bored of reducing the number of pairs of trousers I can wear from my wardrobe with the increased inches around my waist.
In addition to that, this year’s jam-packed Yuletide run of games sees us having a serious interest in winning our first league title for 27 years, meaning that we now also have to deal with stress levels that our over-indulged frames are in no fit state to survive.
All-in-all, not a great combination for living a long and healthy life.
Added to the health dangers linked to the Christmas fixture list, the problem with our all too rare title challenges is that we care too much so every little bump in the road feels like going over the edge of Niagara Falls in a barrel. It’s been so long since we won a league title that many of us don’t really remember it and we therefore don’t have enough muscle memory to comfort us when faced with any blips along the way. We’re like teenage boys trying to get our first kiss, the desperation oozing from every pore of our exuberant bodies.
Let’s put yesterday’s result into context in the hope that we can become the cool kid that everyone wants to kiss. We played a tough away game less than 48 hours after a gruelling and draining face-off with one of the best sides in the division which sapped us both physically and mentally, we went ahead twice and were pegged back through a combination of questionable refereeing decisions and sloppy play. Let’s not forget, though, that two days earlier we witnessed a disciplined performance from this same group of players. The type of performance which I personally didn’t think we had in us. The fact that we showed signs of mental and physical tiredness against Sunderland is no surprise and isn’t something we should overreact to or dwell on. After City the national media was quick to join us in sending warning messages down to Stamford Bridge, now they say we’re too fragile to challenge. Standard stuff.
Questions will obviously be asked of the manager’s decision not to rest any of the team that started the match against City (Jordan Henderson’s omission through injury aside), but at 2-1 with 20 minutes to go it looked to be a gamble that had paid off. Only a questionable first penalty (I’m surprised more hasn’t been made of that decision), a very dubious free-kick (I still don’t think it was a foul by either Lucas Leiva or Emre Can) followed by a moment of madness from Sadio Mane, cost us the three points. I think we can all agree to let Sadio off the hook, given his contribution in the early months of his Liverpool career.
Jürgen was clearly disappointed with the dropped points in his post-match interviews and it was interesting to see how he and Pep Guardiola both seemed equally annoyed by their games despite City having won. I can only imagine the conversations managers like them have with each other when discussing the winter fixture schedule in this country. I’ve mentioned previously my thoughts on the age-old adage that we all play the same teams over the course of the season, and this time of the year demonstrates my point better than any other. All of our rivals will have to play away to Sunderland during the 38 game campaign, but none will have to do it less than 48 hours after playing a huge game against a title rival.
That might well even itself out to some degree over the course of the season but it’s an entirely random element that skews the entire competition, as is the way Chelsea’s fixtures have fallen during the same period.
All-in-all it’s a blow to all of us, but this is as good a time as any to sit back, take a deep breath and calm ourselves down, given that we have nearly two weeks before our next Premier League game away to our fiercest rivals.
We hit the halfway point in the season with the most points we’ve had at that stage in the Premier League era, with only seasons so long ago that it was two points for a win seeing a greater proportion of points being accumulated. The only reason we didn’t finish the calendar year at the league summit is the imperious form of Chelsea, and the hard facts of life are that if they maintain their current form no-one in the country will catch them anyway.
Before the Sunderland game I was lauding Jürgen’s post-City statement that if you’d been on Chelsea’s run of wins and still had a team within six points of you you’d be frustrated, and nothing has changed today. We’re now five points behind as they approach a difficult game away to a Spurs side that is highly motivated to exact revenge for last year’s end of season kick-fest. If they lose at Spurs we all resume Premier League duties after a couple of weeks off for cup games going into the second half of the season five points behind with Chelsea still to come to our place.
If they win away at Spurs to put us eight points off the pace, the doom-mongers will be calling time on our latest title challenge and it will be hard to argue that Chelsea aren’t clear favourites to win the title if they do manage to beat their capital city rivals, but haven’t we all been around long enough to know that no league title has ever been won in January?
At this point last season Arsenal were top and went on to finish 10 points behind Leicester. In 2013/14 we were sitting in fifth place after 19 games, six points behind Arsenal in first place, yet we finished the season five points ahead of the Gunners despite missing out on the top prize. We’ve seen Chelsea start seasons on fire in recent years as well, with pundits and bookies declaring them as winners only for them to fall away, and we’re yet to see what happens this season when they do eventually lose a game (which they will). The goals they conceded to Stoke will have done enough to show the teams they face over the next few weeks that they’re as vulnerable as any other team of humans, capable of making mistakes and conceding goals.
Manchester United are currently 10 points behind Chelsea but, having won six games on the run, you can bet that Jose Mourinho won’t have given up hope of catching his old club, and Guardiola clearly thinks that City are still in the hunt, even after being beaten by us on New Year’s Eve.
While we await Chelsea’s inevitable defeat we should prepare ourselves properly for the second half of the season. I’m going to clear out the last of the chocolates in my house (when I say “clear out” I mean “eat”) before embarking on a title-challenging training regime to ensure that my body can withstand the demands of another five months of the highs and lows that Jürgen’s team will throw at us. We also all need to sign up for some yoga or pilates classes, while learning some breathing exercises to deal with the last 10 minutes of stress-inducing games.
Nobody told us that gegenpressing would challenge our fitness levels as well as the players’, but seeing as that’s now become apparent we’d best prepare accordingly.
It’s going to be a roller coaster of a new year.
All the best.