By Jay Jaffa
Liverpool, with nine Premier League wins in a row and timing their title charge superbly, face Manchester City on Sunday in a clash between two of this season’s heavyweights. Call it a title decider if you like, everyone else is, but with five games to go (seven in City’s case) will the result really allow us to crown the champions in waiting?
The short answer, perhaps surprising given the number of fixtures remaining, is ‘yes’.
If we stretch back to the inception of the Premier League (1992-93), there have been eleven campaigns in which you could sensibly find a ‘title decider’ - measured in this instance by looking back at the run-ins of the eventual Premier League champions and scrutinising games against direct rivals for the title.
Of those eleven seasons, seven (63.63 per cent) has seen the victors emerge as champions, one has seen the loser rally and win the title and three games were drawn by the leaders at the time and still converted into silverware.
The most recent title decider saw City beat Manchester United 1-0 before going on to win the 2011-12 Premier League crown (United's loss to City last season is not valued given Sir Alex Ferguson's side where a whopping 15 points clear at the time).
|BATTLE AT THE TOP
3. Manchester City
However, you need only look to a fixture four games earlier to see how easy it is for narratives to twist week by week. Mario Balotelli’s red card at the Emirates compounded a seemingly catastrophic 1-0 loss to Arsenal that led many to write off City’s chances of catching United.
Yet City rallied that year winning their remaining six and that is a key theme that should not be ignored ahead of Sunday’s game at Anfield. The loser, with as many as six or as few as four games remaining, can still recover, though it is unlikely.
United in 2007-08 are the only recent example of a side bouncing back to win the league from a title deciding loss and even then they went into their game against Chelsea three points ahead and holding a massive goal difference advantage.
This is one of the tightest seasons in recent memory and a legitimate favourite is still yet to emerge. Chelsea are also contenders, sitting second at the time of writing, but it is difficult to predict how strong their challenge will be. Bookmakers are unanimous in their decision to cast them as third favourites - surely influenced by their commitment to Europe and a two legged Champions League semi-final on the horizon.
That said, the Mourinho factor gives the Blues the managerial edge on two Premier League trophy-winning rookies in Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers. Chelsea will be a factor, not least because Liverpool face them at Anfield at the end of April (quite possibly Chelsea's ‘title decider’ if they keep pace with the Reds).
But back to the matter in hand and the idea of momentum. With nine consecutive wins, Liverpool have hit the right note at the perfect stage of the season. Win their tenth in a row on Sunday and it will be incredibly hard to look beyond them as champions.
Much like Arsenal in 2000-01, there is a great deal of parallels with the Reds’ run-in this campaign. Just like the Gunners 13 years ago, Liverpool lead the chasing pack by two points with five games to go. Under Wenger, Arsenal stormed their way to the Premier League, winning their final 13 matches, not needing to even entertain a title decider; no one came close. Interestingly, Rodgers has the chance to make it a 14-game winning run if they triumph in their final 5 games, which would equal Arsenal's Premier League record of consecutive victories.
To focus on the big games year by year gives an insight into what the triumphant team on Sunday can expect though.
Manchester United played Chelsea in 2010-11 three points ahead of their rivals, enjoying an identical goal difference with just three games to go. They won 2-1, Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea couldn’t recover and Ferguson led his side to their 19th title by nine points.
|8/1||Liverpool are 8/1 with William Hill to beat Manchester City 2-1|
The pattern repeats over the spread of 21 seasons with big game triumphs proving the catalyst on a club's march to the Premier League trophy. Chelsea defeated United 3-0 at Stamford Bridge in 2005-06 to win the title with three games to go. Arsenal repeated the feat at Old Trafford in 2001-02 as Sylvain Wiltord rolled a winner past Fabian Barthez with two games remaining.
The 1996-97 campaign saw United, leading Liverpool by two points, win 3-1 at Anfield and ultimately win the title by seven points. Even in the maiden Premier League season there is a prime example as third-placed United beat Norwich 3-1 at Carrow Road to ignite a run that would see them win the 42-game season by ten points.
To repeat an earlier point; there has only been one example in 21 years of a side losing a title decider in the run-in and rebounding to win the title - United in 2007-08 - and even then they were the league leaders at the time.
This is a year that feels different to past Premier League challenges - no Manchester United, no clear favourite - so perhaps there is a chance we may see Sunday's result buck the trend. However, the more sensible option may be to douse the fixture with even more hype.
Sure, in the modern game there has only been one true decider - in the most literal of terms - when Arsenal triumphed at Anfield on the last day of the 1988-89 season to wrench the title from the Reds, and although Sunday doesn’t quite fall into the winner-takes-everything bracket, you can safely assume the victor will go a long way towards claiming English football’s biggest prize.
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