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Playing soccer as a pandemic rages on exacts its toll in different ways. The absence of fans in most every stadium is the obvious cost, stripping the sport of much its cultural framing. The onslaught of games, squeezed into an even tighter schedule than usual in order to allow for every last game and tournament to take place, has put players through the wringer, causing all manner of injuries. And a raft of games has had to be rescheduled as positive cases mount on some teams.
But the insistence on having a full season regardless of the debilitating circumstances has had another effect that is perhaps harder to quantify: Few of the big games have delivered.
Sunday, the latest, much-hyped installment of the Liverpool-Manchester United rivalry heralded a rare edition where both teams were active participants in the title race. Oddly, these two Premier League juggernauts are almost never thriving at the same time. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Liverpool’s global dominance coincided with a long United swoon. Legendary Red Devils manager Sir Alex Ferguson made it his priority to reverse that dynamic and he did, as United won 13 titles in 21 years and Liverpool went 30 years without one. In the post-Ferguson era, United spiraled as Liverpool finally got back on top under Jurgen Klopp.
Ahead of this game, United was back in first place – the first time it led the league this deep into the season since 2013 – and Liverpool was the defending champion who could take over the lead with a win.
The game disappointed. This rare encounter between peak Liverpool and peak(ish) United yielded a game that was tight and tense, but produced no goals and scarcely any scoring chances. It was the fourth game without a win for Liverpool, while United has now run its unbeaten streak to more than two and a half months. It was also the third time in four games that Liverpool, which slipped to fourth place as United held onto first, was shut out. But in spite of scoring just once in that stretch, the Reds still lead the league in scoring with 37 goals in 18 games.
It wasn’t a bad game, per se. There were strong individual performances from Paul Pogba and Harry Maguire on United’s side and Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho on Liverpool’s. Thiago was imperious. Bruno Fernandes was too, for stretches. But on the whole, it resembled more of a game of chess that ended in a humdrum stalemate than a showdown between the league’s highest-scoring teams. Liverpool had more of the ball but lacked precision on the break. United had the better chances but lacked precision in its finishing. Fin.
It wasn’t the first deflating mega-game of this season, hyped and ballyhooed before the air slowly seeped out of the whole thing.
Chelsea, in spite of its defensive fragility and rampant scoring, tied United 0-0 in October and Tottenham Hotspur 0-0 in November. After the fevered buildup to the Manchester derby in December, the match ended 0-0 as well, likely saving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job before the United manager took his team on a run to first place. And then there was City-Liverpool in November, a splendid match for one half and an insipid one for another as the players ran out of gas.
Then there have been the outright bizarre results, like Spurs stomping United 6-1 at Old Trafford, or City slipping up 5-2 to third-place Leicester City.
It’s hard to pinpoint a cause for the sheer number of underwhelming or lopsided games between the big teams. It could be the effect of all those injuries – the fact, for instance, that Liverpool has been forced to use two of its best midfielders to plug holes in its defense, starving its attack of rhythm.
It could be a general fatigue from the schedule pileup. It’s possible that the increased reliance on reserve players, as teams plumb their depth charts, has dulled their sharpness. Or perhaps the differences between the big teams are reduced to the point where they cancel each other out, while they retain enough of a weight advantage to rumble over the smaller teams.
Maybe the lack of fans takes the edge off these big games, diluting their urgency somehow. Maybe with a wide-open title race, managers have grown risk-averse.
None of it is provable. Nor can much of it be argued convincingly. You can find counterpoints to any of it if you want to. But taken together, they might go some way in explaining one of the weirder aspects of an unrelentingly weird season.
Tuesday brings Leicester-Chelsea. The following week Spurs-Liverpool is on the docket. Get excited at your peril.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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