AND so they go on. Like two prize-fighters still slugging it out after the bell has sounded for the start of the 12th round, Manchester City and Liverpool head into the final three matches of the season still bludgeoning their opponents into submission. ‘Anything you can do, we can do better’. Rarely, if ever, has such excellence at the top of the table been so double-pronged.

The trite old phrase, ‘It is a shame there has to be a winner’ tends to stick in the throat in a sporting context – after all, what is the point of competitive sport if there is not to be a decisive outcome? – but just for once, I’m prepared to let it slide. It will be a shame when one of this season’s leading lights come up short, and while they will still be showered with fully-deserved praise, the pain of missing out on the title will sting. Especially if, as looks likely, the losers finish on a total of 97 points.

As things stand, Liverpool look like being those losers, with the outcome of the title race not residing in their own hands. The Reds will return to the top of the pile if they beat basement boys Huddersfield Town tomorrow, but as was the case earlier this week, their spell at the summit will be a brief one unless Manchester City slip up.

You only have to look at the struggles being endured by Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea – and to a much lesser, but probably just about still valid, extent, Tottenham – to appreciate the scale of Jurgen Klopp’s achievement in transforming Liverpool into genuine title contenders.

When Klopp was appointed as Liverpool manager in October 2015, he inherited a side whose start to the season had featured a 3-0 home defeat to West Ham United, a 1-1 draw at home to Norwich City and a Capital One Cup penalty shoot-out win over Carlisle United.

Liverpool were better than that, but only just, and by the end of Klopp’s first season, they were finishing in eighth position, 21 points adrift of surprise champions Leicester City.

The makings of the current side were just about apparent, but there was no Mo Salah, Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino, the attacking triumvirate that has lit up the Premier League in the last couple of years. They arrived over the course of the next two years, but this season’s great leap forward has come largely as a result of the end point in the evolution of the Liverpool defence.

Like all great managers – and there is surely a lesson here for Ole Gunnar Solksjaer as he tries to come to grips with the car crash that is Manchester United – Klopp has come to realise that ‘heavy metal football’ doesn’t get you very far if you’ve got a bunch of callow choirboys at the back.

Signing Virgil van Dijk from Southampton was the key to ensuring Liverpool finished in the top four last season; recruiting Allison to solve a long-standing goalkeeping problem has been the catalyst for this season’s continued progress.

Liverpool will almost certainly win their remaining three matches, although next weekend’s trip to Newcastle United will prove tricky despite Rafael Benitez’s obvious affection for all things Anfield. Almost certainly, though, that will not be sufficient.

If Liverpool have been excellent this season, Manchester City have been that little bit better. One point out of 89 might not sound like much, but in the context of the closest title race since City’s ‘Sergio Aguerooooo’ moment, it is everything.

It should hardly be a surprise that this Manchester City team has shown it has the ability to win the title. The names trip off the tongue now – Aguero, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany – with the core of Pep Guardiola’s side worthy of the same level of praise that was showered on the stalwarts of Sir Alex Ferguson’s great Manchester United teams and Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’.

In 20 or 30 years’ time, this City team will be remembered as one of the great Premier League line-ups, and in the last nine months, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva have elevated themselves to the very top tier of Premier League performers. Sterling’s development under Guardiola has been remarkable, with England also reaping the benefits, while Bernardo has been the unsung star of the season. It was hardly a coincidence that the Portuguese midfielder broke the deadlock at Old Trafford on Wednesday, just as City seemed to be stalling.

Talent has never been an issue. Mettle was more of a moot point, but City have regrouped superbly in the wake of their painful Champions League defeat at the hands of Tottenham. The mental anguish that accompanied such a dramatic exit must have been considerable, but faced with two of their toughest domestic tests – a rematch against Spurs and a trip to Manchester United – City have taken maximum points and claimed two clean sheets into the bargain.

A wobble would have been easy to excuse, but instead, Guardiola’s side have reacted in the manner of champions. As a result, it is now extremely hard to see them coming up short.

Sunday’s trip to Burnley is not a gimme, and Leicester could make things awkward in City’s final game at the Etihad. It is hard to see the reigning champions slipping up though, and even harder to envisage them falling short when they travel to Brighton on the final afternoon.

A second successive title is therefore within touching distance. It will be harsh on Liverpool, but still a fitting end to a truly remarkable season.


ROY KEANE’S diatribe against Manchester United’s under-performing players on Wednesday has inevitably set tongues wagging. The former United skipper has been praised for speaking his mind – “He (Paul Pogba) said it got a bit heated after the game against Everton – I heard they were throwing their hair gel at each other” – and in era when too many people are afraid to speak candidly, it is refreshing to hear an honest view.

But as Keane’s career in management and coaching proves, while he has always been adept at identifying problems, he has generally had rather less success at trying to solve them.

I’m sure Solskjaer sees Pogba as a problem. But with a £100m-plus price tag, and a weekly wage of £300,000, the French midfielder poses an expensive dilemma that will not be easy to resolve.