Pep Guardiola seemed to be sounding unnecessarily cautious. Manchester City were 13 points ahead of Chelsea and 14 clear of Liverpool. The obituaries for the title race were being written. Guardiola thought they were premature. “In January, it is impossible it is over,” he said.
He may take little pleasure in being vindicated. Now City’s lead is down to one point. Liverpool have reeled off nine straight wins, taking eight more points than anyone else in a two-month period. They finished the 2018-19 season with nine consecutive victories. Doing so again will entail beating City at the Etihad Stadium. It would also make them champions.
Jurgen Klopp branded momentum “the most fragile flower in the world” but Liverpool have it. They have proved in the past they can sustain it, most notably on a sensational charge of 35 wins out of 36 between March 2019 and February 2020. It was historically brilliant.
On paper, a trip to Arsenal was the second hardest game in this season’s run-in. They prevailed 2-0. Klopp delighted afterwards in Liverpool’s 17th clean sheet of the Premier League campaign.
It was a seventh in nine games in a time when they have only been breached by Odsonne Edouard of Crystal Palace and Norwich winger Milot Rashica.
It is a spell when the often unheralded Joel Matip has been anointed the Premier League’s player of the month, when Virgil van Dijk has returned to his commanding best and when Alisson, as his save from Martin Odegaard demonstrated, has often been a spectator but has made vital interventions.
Andy Robertson kept Bukayo Saka unusually quiet on Wednesday while Trent Alexander-Arnold fought a brilliant duel with Gabriel Martinelli. Liverpool may yet regret the five times they lost leads to draw in the first 20 matches of the season but there has been no repeat in the last nine.
Klopp’s side have acquired a formidable air at both ends of the pitch. If Mohamed Salah’s presence on the bench at the Emirates Stadium was the product of a minor foot injury, it nevertheless demonstrated a strength in depth.
Divock Origi, long Klopp’s talismanic super-sub, did not even make the matchday squad. Klopp’s holy trinity became a fab four and then a famous five with the additions of Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz.
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If Roberto Firmino appeared fifth in line for those three berths, his goal hinted at a possible reinvention: like in his previous appearance, against Internazionale a month earlier, he was the scoring substitute.
It was created by Robertson, who became the third player to register 10 Premier League assists this season. All three are in Klopp’s squad. Diogo Jota’s first goal in eight games meant he assumed outright second place in the scoring charts, behind Salah. Sadio Mane is tied for third.
If City’s model is to share the goals and assists around more, Liverpool have an array of extraordinarily potent individuals and a system that enables them to flourish.
They have lost just three of 46 games in all competitions this season and failed to score in just four; statistics suggest they are harder to beat and harder to keep clean sheets against than City.
The way Liverpool have confounded predictions to in effect catch City with their inspired surge has illustrated why Guardiola against Klopp has become the defining managerial rivalry of recent years.
It is shorn of the acrimony of Alex Ferguson’s feud with Arsene Wenger. It was put on hold for a year by Liverpool’s defensive injuries. But if that suggested the men from Anfield were slipping back to the pack, their resurgence shows otherwise.
They have sprinted into contention as the race approaches its final straight.