Man United title challenge is just latest Liverpool illusion

Matt Stead

The Premier League title race is an illusion. It suits no-one to accept that: the media needs intrigue and competition, the bookmakers crave uncertainty, the frontrunners must avoid complacency and those behind require something to chase. There is no fun in embracing the inevitable when the mind can instead ponder the improbable.

This strange season has only exacerbated the issue. The desperation to pretend that anything can happen has pervaded the collective consciousness. Each of us have succumbed to the allure of the Premier League offering something different, a tantalisingly baffling campaign and unrepeatable outcome that would provide a snapshot of these extraordinary times in years to come.

Chelsea were top remarkably briefly, as were Southampton. Wolves were level on points with the leaders at one stage. Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Leeds have all occupied places in the top four for considerable periods while Manchester City have not been higher than 7th. More than half of the teams in the league have been in a Champions League qualification spot; 25% of them have been top, which ought to please the amateur mathematician in Mikel Arteta, whose Arsenal spent a week at the summit.

It is a sense of chaos sustained by some quite preposterous and entirely decontextualised scorelines. October 4 saw Liverpool concede seven and Manchester United let in six in chastening defeats. This past weekend saw both inflict those same numbers on unwitting opponents themselves.

“I think Liverpool are still the best, but there’s no reason why United shouldn’t be fancying their chances in terms of pushing Liverpool,” was Roy Keane’s quite sensible take after watching the dismantling of Leeds at Old Trafford. “Liverpool are still the strongest, but United could be the best of the rest.”

The Sky Sports headline gave the game away: anyone pretending those quotes are a declaration that United ‘can challenge’ the champions for their crown are seeing only what they want to. “The best of the rest” will be a distant runner-up, sharing that podium but left in the same dust as everyone else.

There is no shame in that and that is no knock on United. A seven-game unbeaten league run deserves praise and while that has included scraping wins over both of the current bottom two, it also incorporates three victories against top-half sides, a draw with an improving City and the utter dismantling of an adored Leeds team. It all looks to be coming together, yet they will have to sprint until May just to keep the pace.

It took nine games without defeat for Chelsea to be touted as Liverpool’s biggest threat, and just two for that challenge to collapse. Tottenham won seven and drew four matches to take their place and have subsequently fallen away after a couple of damaging losses, too.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have long proven their capitulation against Aston Villa to be an aberration of the highest degree. They look a few levels above the competition, even without their best centre-half, one of the continent’s finest midfielders and a forward in the sort of form that threatened to break up one of elite football’s most enduring attacking triumvirates ever.

Virgil van Dijk, Thiago and Diogo Jota have left sizeable holes in this Liverpool squad that others have stepped up to fill with consummate ease. Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips have emerged, Joel Matip has discovered his durability once more, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back, Curtis Jones has been incredible, Naby Keita was sublime against Crystal Palace and even Takumi Minamino is scoring.

The sight of the Premier League’s current top goalscorer, the winner of the Golden Boot in two of the previous three Premier League seasons, rising from the bench to score twice and assist once at Selhurst Park underlined how mischievous it always was to suggest any squad was stronger than this one.

But it benefits Jurgen Klopp to stoke that fire and keep up the pretence of jeopardy and doubt. Injuries and the schedule have slowed them down somewhat yet the interchangeability of their closest pretenders exposes a quite boring truth: it will take circumstances even more unprecedented than these for Liverpool not to successfully defend this title.

Matt Stead