Premier showdown: High quality but still guessing

SO IT is official, Manchester City and Liverpool are streets ahead of the other 18 teams in the Premier League: intense, skilful, well organised and determined. There’s little between them in what was a classic “game of two halves”. This is just the start of a period that could see the two rivals play each other twice more, starting with the FA Cup semi-final on April 16 at Wembley.

A draw was more suited to City as they are still a point ahead of Liverpool. A defeat would have swung the pendulum towards the Mersey, but a victory would have given City a four-point lead that would have been difficult to retrieve. For the time being, the battle goes on, with each team anxiously watching the other for signs of a slip. At this precise moment, City and Liverpool are operating at full throttle and it is difficult to see who might beat them. However, title races do not always go with the form guide and there will be a setback somewhere, but for whom?

So often, big games disappoint, but both teams were set on gaining an advantage by attacking, rather than opting for a preservative approach. First blood went to City, a deflected shot by Kevin De Bruyne after just five minutes, which suggested that Pep Guardiola was looking to kill Liverpool off early. This was a test for the visitors but they responded well and Diogo Jota slid the ball home after a superb assist by Trent Alexander-Arnold after 14 minutes.

City regained the lead in the 37th minute, Gabriel Jesus, who has become something of a forgotten man at the Etihad, arrived at the far post to finish off a João Cancelo cross. City dominated the first half, but failed to press home their superiority. They were made to pay for it less than a minute into the second period, Sadio Mané marking his 30th birthday with the equaliser. The quality rarely dropped for the remainder of the game.

The result underlined there is little between these two teams, as evidenced by two richly entertaining 2-2 draws this season. They’ve now got seven games remaining, both of them due to face Newcastle, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Of the other four fixtures, Manchester City arguably have an easier time. City are at home to Brighton and Watford and away to Leeds and West Ham. Liverpool have home games against Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham and are away to Southampton.

Both could go all the way in the Champions League, Liverpool have a 3-1 advantage over Benfica from the first leg of the quarter-final, while City holding a narrow 1-0 lead over Atlético Madrid when they travel to the Wanda Metropolitano for the second leg.

Who came out of this riveting contest feeling they had got what they were looking for? Pep Guardiola felt his side missed an opportunity, while Jürgen Klopp, refusing to sound disappointed, gave some hint of the way he felt in believing it was a result Liverpool had to live with.

City should have won as they had more possession (55%-45%) and more shots on goal (11-6). They also had the best player on the pitch in De Bruyne, although Jota was very productive, although his striking partner, Mo Salah, was not at his best for most of the game.

Advantage City? Not really, but they are still in command and Liverpool have to depend on somebody upsetting Guardiola’s men if they are to win their second Premier title. Both will surely end the campaign with more silverware (Liverpool have already had a glimpse), but who wins what is still a mystery. We are no nearer discovering the truth.

Manchester United are now so far behind Guardiola’s City it’s painful

RALF RANGNICK said just recently Manchester United need an identity just like their rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. This was a strange thing to say, for United, more than most clubs in Britain, made their name on their identity firstly in the Busby years and then in the trophy-laden time of Sir Alex Ferguson. United provided the blueprint for everyone’s idea of a successful football club, but when Ferguson left, the rug was pulled out from under their feet at precisely the wrong time, for their neighbours were in the ascendancy and had plenty of cash to build their team.

We’ve known for some time Manchester City have overtaken United in most things, but a 4-1 derby defeat merely highlighted just how much of a chasm the difference is between the two clubs. For some time, pundits and United-centric media folk have used the excuse of poor managerial appointments, but United have tried all angles: the brave appointment (Moyes); the proven track record men (Van Gaal and Mourinho); one of our own (Solskjaer) and the far-sighted, fashionable hiring (Rangnick). Ironically, the trophy men delivered the only prizes United have won since Ferguson’s retirement, the FA Cup in 2016, the EFL and Europa in 2017, but that didn’t make the club happy.

What are they really looking for and will they be patient enough to really transform Manchester United from what has become a money-wasting, knee-jerk footballing institution desperate to make up lost ground?

The man they really want is Pep Guardiola, but that can be interpreted as a yearning to buy an off-the-shelf system that can create a new United dynasty. Guardiola is part of a club that is not just signing top players, but is also building something very solid, multi-faceted and very considered. Of course, it is underpinned by vast sums of Abu Dhabi money, but United have not been short of money, they have spent heavily on players – £ 1.3 billion in 10 years, versus City’s £ 1.4 billion – and their wage bill is among the highest in world football, but they have lacked direction and a clear strategy. The longer time passes after Ferguson, the less United-like they seem.

City were excellent at times in the Manchester derby but United’s shortcomings were there for all to see. Harry Maguire is rapidly looking like £ 75 million’s worth of lumbering centre half rather than a modern, articulate defender. Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian captured the Maguire condition perfectly: “A player who can look so commanding, particularly in the less demanding world of international football, has become a liability.” Wilson adds that Maguire goes “wobbling into challenges with all the grace of an Easter Island figure being brought down from a quarry.” To be fair to Maguire, United’s lack of defensive savvy exposes him time and time again.

For 45 minutes, United competed well even though they went in at half-time 2-1 down, but it was the poor second half and 79% City possession depressed the red half of Manchester. The Telegraph commented: “This may go down as one of the most shameful derby defeats in Manchester United’s long history. They are the Damned United on this spineless evidence.” Gary Neville commented on SKY: “Any time they play a half decent team, they lose.”

Kevin De Bruyne, who scored twice in the game, told The Mirror that United’s players did not have the required energy and fitness levels to play the type of game asked of them. “When you play a pressing style, it’s very hard to adjust to it, so maybe it seemed like they did give up a little,” De Bruyne said.

Paul Pogba came in for criticism, a player who has never justified the huge transfer fee United paid for him. Paul Hirst of The Timesasked if the French midfielder will be missed when he eventually leaves. “It is hard to think of a prolonged period when he has put in a series of world class performances…for £ 89 million, United were expecting a much better return on their investment.”

That’s one area where City are faring far better than most, they get more value out of their players. How many of United’s big signings have truly worked out? The players used in the game with United cost them £ 554 million compared to United’s £ 456 million. City’s players have a market value of more than £ 600 million, United’s just under £ 500 million.

United’s market activity has been questioned, and rightly so. Daniel Storey of the points to the gross wastage that comes from a transfer policy that focuses on big, expensive names as well as players others are pursuing. Consider the amount paid to hire veterans like Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As Storey adds, “the most miserable conclusion for any United supporter is that they were outclassed by City because City are light years ahead.”

Ronaldo was missing from the City defeat and must be thanking his lucky stars he has a hip flexor injury. But there are concerns about CR7 and his form. He has scored once in 10 games but he has looked increasingly frustrated in recent games and there are conflicting stories about his relationship with certain players and Rangnick. There are whispers circulating that he was actually dropped. Barry Glendenning, in The Guardian, noted: “While the official United line was that Cristiano Ronaldo had sat this one out in Portugal with hip-knack, pre-match rumours suggested the preening show-pony might have stormed off to Portugal in a hissy-fit upon discovering he would not be playing in a starting line-up that boasted no out-and-out strikers.”

The current situation at United is hard for the Old Trafford faithful to take, but for Sir Alex Ferguson, he must wonder what is happening to the little empire he built. The Manchester Evening News reported: “There was a heart-wrenching acceptance etched across his face as United were humiliated at the Etihad. United are now recognisable to the club that Ferguson left behind but the 80 year-old seems to have come to terms with it. That’s a sad indictment of where United currently are.”

Sources: The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Manchester Evening News, The i, The Mirror.