The phrase “a game of inches” is usually associated with the other type of football, but it is particularly relevant to the 2018-19 Premier League, which may quite literally be decided by the tiniest of physical measurements.
The lead at the top of the table changed hands for a record 30th time this past weekend, as Manchester City edged a point ahead of Liverpool via a tense 1-0 win at Burnley. Sergio Aguero’s winning goal crossed the line by a mere 29.51 millimeters — a hair over an inch — in the 64th minute of a tie in which the reigning champions were far from their best. In an age before goal-line technology, it’s likely that Matthew Lowton’s attempted clearance would have been deemed successful. In that instance, we may have seen City draw, leaving them a point behind Liverpool in the table.
This isn’t the only moment in which an inch or less may have tipped the scales of the title race. During City’s 2-1 win over the Reds in January — a game that remains Jurgen Klopp’s only league defeat of the season — John Stones cleared the ball off the line by just 11 millimeters. That’s 0.4 inches. Once again, if Stones had been a fraction of a second too late, City would likely be in second place.
⛔️ Left: John Stones' goal-line clearance vs. Liverpool
⚽️ Right: Sergio Aguero's goal vs. Burnley
The 2018-19 Premier League title could be settled by a matter of centimetres. 📏 pic.twitter.com/Mfu37XIC1i
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) April 28, 2019
Of course, Man City is not in second place. They have been favorites to win the league from the start of the campaign, and they are deemed likely to win their remaining two games to become the first Premier League side to defend the title since Manchester United in 2009. If all results fall as expected, and both title rivals win their remaining games, Liverpool’s 29-year wait for the English title will continue.
The Reds have finished second on four occasions since they last won the league in 1989-90, but this one may be the toughest to accept. There has been no “slip” and capitulation during the run-in, like their unsuccessful campaign of 2014-15. And they did not lose ground early in the fight, like the runners-up of 2008-09.
Liverpool could end this season with only a single loss — to its title rivals, where the aforementioned 11 millimeter goal-line clearance prevented a draw. They have led the league on 17 matchdays and boast two of the league’s three top goal scorers in Mo Salah and Sadio Mane. Their thunderous and thrilling gegenpressing style means that their two fullbacks, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, are both in the league’s top seven assist providers.
If the season ended today, Liverpool’s tally of 91 points and +64 goal difference would be good enough to win all but five of the Premier League’s 27 seasons. And if they finish the campaign with 97 points, their tally would be good enough to win every single Premier League campaign before 2017-18. They would have finished 22 points ahead of the Manchester United team that took the glory in 1996-97.
After enjoying such a tremendously successful campaign, it will be a bitter pill to swallow to finish without a Premier League trophy. It will also be another example of the Reds failing to take the gold medal in recent seasons: Klopp has seen his team finish runner-up in the Champions League Final, the Europa League Final and the League Cup Final.
If they do not win, they may kick themselves for ceding the nine-point lead they enjoyed in the new year. Much like the 2008-09 campaign in which they finished second, their undoing came thanks to a series of draws in January and February. While City got its shaky form out of the way in December, the Reds gave up 11 points in the two months after Christmas.
The manager, however, has taken a gracious approach to the situation.
"If City win all their games, then I can only congratulate them. It is quite simple,” Klopp said. "They had an unbelievable 2017-18 season and have almost matched their points tally from that year. That's absolute madness. You can only admire such consistency.”
“So, if City win the league, they will have deserved it."
In the proverbial Premier League bar, this is the palatable chaser to the throat-burning shot of despair Liverpool fans may be feeling. There is absolutely no shame in finishing behind this Manchester City team.
After all, this is a City side with bottomless resources, who have shaped their playing philosophy and spending over the past few years to suit one of the best managers in the world. That manager has subsequently been allowed to spend €600m refining an enviable squad, who now play some of the most breathtaking soccer England has ever seen.
They have earned a phenomenal 192 combined points over the past two seasons, scoring an average of 2.7 goals per game in the process. They are showing consistency the likes of which has never been seen in the EPL, and there is nothing to suggest they will not finish the season on a streak of 14 straight wins.
Unlike Liverpool, their squad has recent experience of going the distance in the title race, and their two championship wins before Pep arrived came on the final day. So Man City knows how to close this one out.
But in some recent matches, such as the FA Cup semifinal against Brighton and last weekend’s visit to Burnley, City has looked sub-par for some spells. However, the true mark of a great team is to come through poor performances with a positive result. That is exactly what Pep Guardiola’s side is doing.
Manchester City is, almost without question, the strongest side English soccer has ever seen. With that in mind, it is perfectly understandable for Klopp to offer polite applause for their achievements.
Of course, it is worth noting that City’s impending triumph is not a foregone conclusion: Their final two matches both represent potential banana skins. Its next opponent is Leicester, which is in fine form under Brendan Rodgers and beat City earlier this season. (Arsenal was given a brutal lesson in the manner in which Jamie Vardy can punish a high defensive line last weekend.) On the final day, City will face a Brighton side that caused problems in their FA Cup meeting and may need a victory to stave off relegation.
The Reds also have a potential trap game when they face Wolves on the final day. The resilient promoted side have an impeccable record against the top six, and they knocked the Reds out of the FA Cup this season. Liverpool also has the added stress of an uphill battle against Barcelona at Anfield on the horizon.
However, in all likelihood, both title contenders will win both their remaining games. Thus, it will be up to Jurgen Klopp to make sure he measures up in the game of inches next season.
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