By J Hutcherson (Apr 23, 2019) US Soccer Players - The Premier League has another game that may or may not decide the title. That adds even more to Wednesday's Manchester derby, with the running joke that United's support would be happy to see City win since it would hurt Liverpool's title chances. That's how you pick your real biggest rival, an object lesson of sorts for anybody who thinks things have fundamentally changed in English soccer. Manchester United and Liverpool remember when City was a struggling second-tier club better known for the fun their traveling support had in stadiums that weren't Old Trafford or Anfield.
It's the type of insult that soccer seems well equipped to offer. It's not just playing down a local derby. It's playing up the opportunity to stick it to Liverpool. Regardless of the level of seriousness involved, this is part of the game. It's picking the opposition that matters most and hoping for the worst. Liverpool losing is worth City winning, at least in the banter stakes.
Manchester City may not see the humor, but they've got their own problems to figure out. Beating Spurs in the Premier League after losing to them in the Champions League quarterfinals might mean the key moment in City's season already happened. Nobody among the English elite should pretend that the Premier League counts more than the Champions League. It's almost silly to suggest that. Should Spurs or Liverpool go on to win the Champions League, that's the biggest moment for English soccer in 2018-19 full stop.
For City, winning the Premier League title is now it's own odd version of damage control. This is a team that promised much and has so far delivered the Carabao Cup. Adding the FA Cup to that without the Premier League title isn't going to cut it. This is a team that's supposed to be a Champions League contender and comfortably top of the table in the Premier League. Right now, they're a team where too much is in question.
"It’s a derby," Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said. "Derbies played in Spain and Germany they’re special games or the fans for the club. I saw what these games do - it’s a different game - the one against Everton is over and the only one that matters is tomorrow. We have four games left so we have to win all four to retain title. It’s not easy place to go but at same time it’s a nice place to go. We know exactly what we have to do. We’re going to go there to do a good game."
Regardless of what the fans might feel about making things difficult for Liverpool's chances at a Champions League and Premier League double, Manchester United has its own issues. That 4-0 loss at Everton on the heels of a 4-0 aggregate exit to Barcelona in the Champions League takes the gloss off of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era. Manchester United's decision to remove the interim title after a run of success now seems questionable, with the club once again in disarray. Rumors now have Manchester United considering moving Solskjaer's assistant Mike Phelan to technical director.
For his part, Solskjaer's response to the loss at Everton is now ongoing. "We have got to apologize to the fans," he said. "That performance was not good enough for a Manchester United team - from me to the players. We know we let the fans and the club down. That performance is difficult to describe because it was so bad. They beat us on all the basics. We were beaten on all the ingredients you need, added to your talent, today. As I said last week as well, there is no place to hide on the pitch. It was 85 minutes before we had a shot on target. It's not good enough. We know that."
Unfortunately for United at this stage, so does everybody else in the Premier League. They're now in a situation where their run of results earlier this year seems like a different squad. Recovering from that over the four games left in the season may be too much of an ask. This version of United has spent 2018-19 responding to crises and reestablishing itself only to fall into another crisis.
"There’s one thing that we have to do – words are not enough – we have to show on the pitch and show to the fans that we’re better than that," United midfielder Paul Pogba said about the loss to Everton. “What we did is not respectful for ourselves or for the fans."
Meanwhile, Liverpool is still in contention for the two titles that count and playing like a team that can keep control. At Cardiff in the Premier League they did the same thing we saw in the Champions League against Porto. Make the opposition work for everything only to discover that they're chasing goals as the game gets away from them. Making that work against Barcelona is now the biggest ask this season for any Premier League team.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Pep Guardiola and the problem with managing a super club
- The Champions League knockout
- 2019 is another test of MLS parity
- The problem with soccer on TV
Logo courtesy of Liverpool