The Champions League Final (Which Was Crap).

So it was plainly sapping. The game was treacly and dysfunctional – almost shockingly so, certainly disappointingly so. And yet Liverpool, this Liverpool and this Tottingham, come to that, we know to be better than this.

Was it just me, or were Liverpool pret-ty close to outstanding away at Barcelona, recently? (Know they got beat 3-0 but stay with me). Didn’t that game signal a kind of triumphal comfort, for the most part, with the very highest echelon of the world game? Because Liverpool spent a good chunk of that game fearlessly passing around Barca, thumb-nosingly fluently. And doesn’t that mean that they’d – in their racy, exhilarating brilliance – gone past nerves?

Apparently not.

The Champions League Final was crap. They often are, of course but this was somehow different. It wasn’t due to cynicism or negativity from either party: it seemed more about a lack of ability to play (on the day) rather than some miserablist intention.

Klopp spoke immediately afterwards of his players ability to come through, when exhausted. His pride was more about that sense of something overwhelming having been ‘survived’ – something extra to the *actual footie*. He noted conditions and the long, cruel treading of water between the end of the domestic season and this most climactic of events. The challenges, in short, were not about football.

Nerves and what we might call loss-of-form in the moment strike brutally and often. Nearly every major sports event can be Exhibit A in this regard. Oftentimes, we can actually predict who might ‘disappear’ or ‘have a bit of a mare’ when the spotlight really glares. It’s part of the fun, for us breezy scribes and cod-psychologists – and for Yer Average Fan, too, surely?

In Madrid, it felt that there was a general washing away of the individual power to excel, rather than the utter exposure of Player A or B. Sure Kane was woefully uninvolved, and Alli again, after an encouraging start, seemed disturbingly unconcerned to actively intervene. And the erstwhile or early-season All-Court Genius that is Firmino again put the mute into muted, but the issue seemed like a broad, mid-range affliction rather than a personal, individualised trauma. Nearly everyone was a tad off.

You will find exceptions, perhaps. Perhaps Alisson, who was good. Perhaps Matip and Danny Rose. But most underachieved.

The penalty was maybe a factor – have heard this argument.

‘Liverpool didn’t need to blahdiblah cos of the early advantage. They know they’re the best defence in the league’.

But na. The pen was a) odd and b) always going to be given (in the Champions League this year) and c) inevitably some sort of factor but it actually precipitated a spell of countering from Tottenham which was medium-positive, as opposed to reckless or deathwishtastic. The temper of the game was never high enough for anything to be decisive.

So what was it, then? Occasion-related clamminess? Broiling Nerves Syndrome? Symptoms may include; eyes glazed over; dread-fulness.

Whatever, Some Inevitable Depressive Force was acting, here. Something which sapped 28 to 53% of the life and the talent from some brilliant footballers – some of whom you would say are outstanding, upstanding characters. Most of them could not pass and move and pass to save their lives, last night. Amazing; okay we know Liverpool play a pacy game but they can retain the ball; not last night.

Two further things: firstly I wish to out myself as someone who whilst absolutely rating Pochettino, finds the Poch love-in a little wearing. Excellent manager but look closely at last night’s unfolding (or lack of it) and maybe the first half, home to Ajax and then reflect.  Questionable approach, outcomes delivered more by The Fates than by The Poch, for me.

Secondly, it all feels okaaaay, because Liverpool have made such a powerful contribution to both Premier League and European Football this year that not many would argue against the notion that they deserve something. Cos high-level sport is all about merit, eh?

The Final was extraordinary, was it not? Only not in a good way, really. Ask your Scouse mates if that matters.

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Levels of Hurt.

Bale’s two interventions. Ramos. Karius. Salah. Wow.  The word is probably ‘dramatic’.

Dramatic but cruel? Dramatic and relatively just? Depends where you’re at. As a neutral, the result felt a tad generous to the slightly haughty Spain-based gentlemen but they were (in some sense) classier and more comfortable on the night. Predictably.

Modric was absurdly unhurried as usual; Marcello – without engaging annoyingly flamboyant mode – was cool. The Liverpool midfield were not; most of the Red Men, were not.

For much of the game, Milner and Wijnaldum and Henderson fluffed things or threaded passes straight to the opposition. Both the Englishmen did that thing where they make the case against themselves, as top international players. They looked bloody ordinary – and one-paced.

Wijnaldum was mostly worse than that, for the first hour plus,  but almost looked to have settled, arguably unhelpfully, by about the eightieth minute.

The passing out from defence was similarly twitching between the poles of freneticism and wastefulness. Klopp seemed generally impassive on the sidelines but the disappointment at the level of sheer nervousness and consequent lack of fluency and fire must have hurt him. Not much worse than not turning up for a massive, massive game.

By my reckoning only Mane and Robertson did themselves justice – certainly in terms of forward, or forward-thinking play.

Sure we can credit Modric (mainly) for the suppression of the Liverpool Way, but I can’t be the only one who (whilst acknowledging Real’s impressive ease) also feels they might really have been vulnerable to the kind of exhilirating rampage Klopp’s team have been serving up all year.

Instead Ramos and Morcello and co went relatively untested.

Of course it’s easy to be critical after the event but I did wonder during the game why the Liverpool coaches were not more animated and maybe proactive. (Presumably Klopp tried to light a bonfire at halftime, rather than counselling calm and measured improvement?)

If Klopp was content to concede possession and look to counter-attack – that’s maybe only to be expected, right? – then okaaaay, except that conceding possession against the most successful team in European Cup/Champions League history will surely invite trouble in the end? Plus – in my view critically – Liverpool have thrived via a pacy, open matrix rather than an italianate(?) deliberately staccato slow-then-alarmingly-quick approach.

Firmino wants to flick things and move; Mane wants to run, Salah wants to turn and race. Much of this starts from halfway and/or springs from periods of pressure,  from within the energy and context of an athletic, confident, free-running team. In my view that kind of team might be more of a threat to Ramos’s relative lack of legs, Morcello’s arrogance etc etc.

In short I think Klopp missed a trick – or his players were too awestruck to express their natural way. That’s a tad frustrating.

The genuinely sad and inevitably damaging removal of Salah was of course a factor – though already Liverpool’s performance seemed both muted and on balance likely to stay that way. The dancing Egyptian might plainly have unzipped the Madrid backline at any moment and the watching world was robbed of much of that frisson.

In terms of Match-winning Moments, let’s concentrate on Bale’s extraordinary overhead. Throw in the fact that it was *more possible* for a left-footer to do what he did than a right… and we are still left with something impossible. Impossible and magnificent and staggeringly, wonderfully worthy. And how hilarious that all of us thought immediately of Ronaldo’s ego flinching at the sight?

The other Madrid goals were clangers off-the-scale: mortifying to watch. Paul Hayward has rightly led the calls for understanding of the possible dangers around these freakish and traumatic moments. Let’s just add that maybe we all have a kind of duty of care to Karius and then move on, hoping that he can, with help and support,  gather himself and respond.

Madrid are champions and they deserve it. They may be fortunate though, that the real Liverpool did not show up; that Liverpool might have hurt them.

One v One?

So this one is peculiar. In that, well, can anyone of us remember a time when teams quite like this – i.e. so-o close to being unworthy of the brand – competed for the Unofficial Championship of the Wooorrrrr-leda? Well – Lankishire. And okay I know prob’ly four-elevenths of Utd is nearly brilliant (guess which bits?) but such is the ragged nature of a) their defence and b) Liverpool that that provocative farker of an opening question stands. United are nearly shocking but third… and Liverpool are almost completely shocking and nowhere.

Fair enough?

Ok I did say provocative farker. Lately Manchester United have cartwheeled or blundered into a run of victories where that proper MU footie – the full-on whirligig carnival, the attack-attack hurricane – has held a giddy sway over woe, embarrassment and self-destruction. Flashing directness from Di Maria with Rooney and Mata popping passes from an almost convincing hub; Fellaini (remarkably) playing as though he intermittently remembers the gist of it all; De Gea pinning things together or, yaknow, doing that saving the day thing ‘keepers do. Liverpool meanwhile have been so shot that it’s bloody fascinating.

Rodger’s team are so far from the swelling and relentless brilliance of much of last season that even those of us who expected a drop-off have joined the flummoxed zillions. On the one hand we accept that losing Suarez and Sturridge would be massive for any side but how to explain the utter disappearance of the zest, the belief, the running, the teaminess? Extraordinary.

Given that the first imperative for any manager must be to sort the buzz – the environment – around the team, the dip in positive energy that’s occurred at Anfield is mind-boggling -and a serious black mark against the previously burgeoning Rodgers. As we speak, a whole host of spotty Sports Psychology students must surely be hypothesising rhythmically around the phenomenon.

OOOH- has he simply lost the dressing room? Aaah – is the almost casual decency and articulacy of the man longhand for ‘he’s just too soft?’ Do-oooo the players think him one-dimensional as a bloke and as a coach? Wordy and scrambled? I-i-i-i-sss the essence of this that Rodgers lacks physical presence in a scrap, or does his list of strategies read a) attack with pace, beeeeeeyah) poop yer panties if this doesn’t work? And OH SWEET JEE-SUS why the utter vacuum where Liverpool used to be, eight, ten months ago? Why?

Could be that Liverpool don’t have that many good players. And/or that when the squeeze came on at the death of last season things conspired to expose them; they were unlucky but they were (mentally) weak. Or could be Ar Brendan is simply failing to motivate the group – evidently failing?

From Gerrard’s freakish slip to the trauma-fest at Palace, the suspicion does burn that Liverpool bottled it. They nose-dived from the carefree to the lamentably vulnerable and if they haven’t stayed entirely in that same, hideous, crushingly calamitous groove, they have stayed crap .

You can blame individuals or individual moments for last season’s non-consummation but that collective truth – that Liverpool couldn’t quite hack it – persists.  Corrosively.

People laughed when I singled out Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling for failing to bury Palace midway into the second half of that tumultuous, decisive fixture. They said it was ‘obvious’ the defence blew it (as though I didn’t know that). We all knew the back four was Liverpool’s achilles throughout the season but in that key moment a tad more composure, a tad more ice in the veins from front players would’ve seen Liverpool beyond any sniff of a comeback. For me it was a critical sign that they lacked that essential, murderous edge; they were too close to the ordinary humans chasing after them.

This is history and I’m not (actually) arguing that it is central now. It is present but not central. It may have been causative but today/this season ain’t about scars, it’s about current lack of ease, pattern… and therefore form.

Rodgers has failed to bundle or bully or mould his much-changed group into anything close to a bona fide top four side. There is no comparison between what his attack might offer on Sunday with what Suarez and Sturridge and a flying Sterling offered last year.

Lambert, honest and competent as he is, serves more as a symbol than a striker. He can and will get goals, but he is one-paced and limited; he will rarely electrify the Kop or anyone else. His former club-mate Lallana is arguably theoretically closer to the required pedigree but has played poorly and looked like just another gifted but bland dilettante.

Liverpool have gone from being so tremendously free-flowing they didn’t need to think about nuts/bolts/assembly, to being a side with no engine and no personality. Even Gerrard has only occasionally or momentarily thrown off the slough through sheer force of will. Rodgers must take responsibility for this.

On the other side on Sunday is Van Gaal, a man who may be fluking or scrambling his way somewhere brilliant or precarious. He knows McNair and Rojo and Blackett and Evans and Shaw and Rafael and Jones and Smalling may all fall short of the mark. Against Liverpool he may well pick three of them plus Carrick and genuflect his way ostentatiously through the contest knowing god may not help him.

For United, everything is a gamble. They have quality going forward but they have no consistency – and they still have no defence. Whether they will attackattackattack against their despised rivals will be one of many questions pondered between now and the outbreak of hostilities. The Dutch bruiser-sophisticate could claim a maniacal but spirited offensive is the only way to go given his options and the relative distraction of his opponents. This could mean a fabulous goal-fest or a simple, deflating loss, as United get undone on the break – six times.

Or, we could get a proper North-West derby game. Loaded with bile, low on quality (this one could get very low?), notably unattractive.

Van Gaal is trying to get his side to zip the ball about; he wants great movement as well as instinctive early passing but this demands confidence. As we have seen with Liverpool there’s nothing as infectious as doubt, so United must hope that touches are sure and folks don’t go missing – both may be at issue Sunday afternoon. I can already hear LVG eyeballing his tetchy superstars and setting out the mantra – you supply the dodgy Dutch accent.

We have to believe. When we pass – yes! Believe. When we press – yes! Believe. When we accept the ball under pressure – believe. We can win the game. We are positive. This is what we do.

Van Gaal will find more quality – almost certainly from outside the club – and then he will build.  Even in the chaos of now there is undeniable momentum.

Sunday could be a day where all things may be so subsumed in the vortex that the personnel barely matter. Liverpool will naturally want to still the storm and United surf it. Rodgers nor Van Gaal should have to stir the blood of their players but the two gaffers will still need to perform. Wonderfully, the challenge may revolve around the degree to which one bloke can influence and inspire eleven others. Meaning a very real, very feisty one v one.

Currently, this would favour Van Gaal and United.

United in their clunkiness.

Those with even the faintest notion of what’s going on in the world of football will know that the ‘relationship’ between Liverpool FC and Manchester United is spicy. In fact it ain’t spicy – or certainly not in any sense aromatically attractive – it stinks; it’s an all hummin’, gut-churnin’ clusterbomb of a thing, particularly off the park. Impossible (probably) to judge whether it’s the foulest rivalry of them all but there is an unseemly kind of hatred there that even mature and otherwise intellectually-viable human specimens seem to get caught up in.

Whilst this phenomena is historically and sociologically interesting I urge that we do get past it, erm… chaps and settle for the standard, or ideally elite-level exchange of witticisms common between opposing fans the globe over. Banter. Good-natured piss-taking or street-step, up-to-the-mike dissin’ of them Manc lot fer thur shockun defence or vice-versa/whatever. Let’s face it currently both sides have plenty of scope for abusing t’other.

Right now I imagine fans from Southampton to Sunderland are taking a certain rare pleasure in the sight of Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC – traditionally the swaggeriest of the swaggerers? – holding hands and walking rather shamefacedly into the Duffer’s Disco. Both are pitifully dad-dancing, or at least only fitfully finding the groove, being united in their clunkiness. Why is that?

Liverpool fans may be secretly the more concerned of the two ailing or failing dance-troupes. Because last year their side was so revelatory… and then came up short when it seemed like ultimate and redemptive glory beckoned. Scousers will be aware of and hurt by the accusations that pressure got to Liverpool when (as United fans gleefully point out) for the first time for aeons they were right in the mix at the back end of the season. It may be stretching it to think that Gerrard’s slip and those alarming capitulations were all down to pressure but something did happen to cruelly unravel a brilliant season. Now the feeling – the fear – will be growing in Liverpool that last year was The One… and it did get away.

Following a genuinely poor start Rodgers suddenly has his work cut out. Sure there have been changes but he would be wise not to make too much of the ‘disruption’ caused by the departure of Suarez and injuries to Sturridge. Liverpool FC are competing now in the big league in terms of transfers and bulking up their squad; so no excuses. Their failure smacks of lack of confidence and drive as well as due to individual issues with personnel. In other words it’s beyond excusing. Ar Brendan has to get topside of the group before (say) Balotelli’s propensity to sulk and undermine eats away further at the previously resurgent fabric of the club.

The Mario gamble I had no problem with. In fact, because I rate him highly, I thought Rodgers might conjure the best from Balotelli. This is still possible of course but that immediate prospect of the love-him/hate-him Italian enigma scorching into cult status having scored a bagful of screamers fades with each slightly dispiriting performance. The Kop needs something to shout about and Rodgers needs to provide.

Thirty miles east and the story runs parallel. Except that last season United were awful not brilliant. And van Gaal has had no lead-in time. But again because of the resources of the club excuses will not be tolerated. Real fans – of which there are, contrary to folklore, plenty – will give the man a little time because plainly there were cavernous holes in the squad but (again) things must simply be sorted.

The Red Devils cash having been splashed extravagantly, MU’s pre-season friendlies were quietly encouraging. Then the paucity of the United defence and the relative frailty of their confidence was utterly exposed in the physical and psychological crash-bang-wallop of real matches. Like Liverpool – only more so – they had no core, no solidity. The extraordinary inability to foresee and then cover the loss of Vidic and Ferdinand – both in decline for eighteen months – proved costly as occasionally sparkling forward play was made irrelevant by inadequate defending.

It may be true that there appears to be a world shortage of central defenders but for Manchester United to continue to line up with two or even three covering players demonstrably short of MU quality is either calamitous or remarkable depending on your allegiance or otherwise to the club. Either way it is an indictment of the shambolic transfer policy at Old Trafford. Incidentally the fact that van Gaal had to summarily abandon his plans to install a back three because the players were simply unable to cope with it speaks volumes on the issue of how truly premier our Premiership stars are, does it not? As with Ingerland FC, the rank inflexibility – the unskilledness? – of Jones/Smalling and co disappointed but surely did not entirely surprise?

The signing of Di Maria has been the chink of light. He looks United alright. Rapid and in the dubious modern phrase – penetrative. Falcao (in the traditional phrase) may need a goal but can clearly play heads-up footie of a high level; the attacking ‘problem’ for van Gaal (as for Hodgson?) seems to be settling on a role for Rooney… and van Persie. Shoe-horning all four of these mega-players into the same line-up may be unwise, may be impossible. Helpful of Rooney to get himself banned then.

There are arguably more problems of team shape for United than over at Anfield. There’s still, in short, a hole where the central defensive axis should be; a hole that spreads forward alarmingly into midfield when teams really get at them. They have players in there but no enforcer, leaving them vulnerable when the opposition squares up and fights.

What the clubs share – fascinatingly – is palpably thin confidence; susceptibility to pressure. This weekend Liverpool have what would appear a straightforward home game to West Brom. United meanwhile face them other scousers – Everton – in their first tough fixture of the season. How will they be if things go against them?

Managers earn their money in moments like these. Rodgers must bully or ingratiate his way in to a group that suddenly looks and feels exposed. Van Gaal has always known he was making a new beginning. Choose your words carefully, gentlemen.

Triumph and tears.

Liverpool City. Had everything. Goals, sunshine, vitriol, clangers, minimal Yaya. Premier-quality cheating. It was splattered with incidents and raw with that uncomfortable mix of poignancy and venom. My response is loaded and maybe lumpen in the way of the match. It’s bullet-pointed again – immediate.

• I’m fascinated and appalled by Suarez to the point where I don’t really want to go there… and yet must. But not first. But been thinking about the man a fair bit. He’s plainly dysfunctional – yeh, I think that’s the word. Dysfunctional.
• Happier thoughts… Sterling’s opening goal. Was this so brilliant that it confirmed him as an England World Cup starter? Was that composure evidence of such fabulous growth in his game that he must leap to the front of the wide player’s queue? Many would think so. I’ve been and remain just a tad concerned that he may in that real moment – the bona fide competitive international game – shrink back into Walcott/Lennon(?)/Ox(?) mode. He has something of the junior flyer about him that concerns me but he was certainly influential in this the biggest game of the Premiership season so far. We know he would run at people in the World Cup but would he do it with real belief or would he be as inconsistent and ultimately wasteful as the eight zillion other Boy Wonders who have disappointed in recent times?
• Whatever, Sterling will go to Brazil (now) and he will probably (now) be ahead of the fella who’s got closest in the last season or two to delivering – Townsend. Once there I hope Sterling/Townsend will be encouraged to both hug the touchlines and dart central. In other words get involved/get plenty of precious touches/be influential.
• Sturridge will of course also travel. But which Sturridge? The sullen, frankly greedy geezer who makes too many bad football choices (because he’s greedy) or the unplayably good finisher who finishes so devastatingly often because… he’s greedy (for it?) Today he was ordinary – as he has been for the last month. Saving it up for Italy, hopefully.
• Incidentally I squirmed a little when I saw that bloke Clattenberg centre-stage today. He’s a little greedy for it too, is he not?
• Inevitably, there were ‘decisions.’ Clattenberg appeared to be avoiding making positive calls until the relative safety of the final few minutes, where he felt able to dismiss Henderson for his tired (o je-sus I can’t get… there) lunge. Marginal in the sense that there was no spite in the challenge but Henderson did jump in there with studs high. So red.
• Prior to this – count ‘em? – there were any number of appeals for pens, all turned away. Suarez, Silva and Zabaleta all ‘made the most’ of things. Suarez fell most obviously into the Shameful Outrage category and therefore he gets no sympathy from me for later incidents that may in isolation have been judged in his favour. I know that ain’t logical but a) that’s how us humans work –Clattenburg too? And b) the Uruguayan should have been red-carded for his most nauseatingly OTT effort.
• I do wonder if Suarez – who presumably believes himself innocent(?) – might think ‘bugger this feragameasoldiers lichke’ and actually go to Real, where he may think there is less outrage to contend with. (Plusses/minuses; La Liga refs and defences are even worse but things feel less judgemental.)
• I would miss ar Luis – about as much as Sturridge would, I reckon – though less than Liverpool FC. The number 7 is one of the best forwards in world footie… but one of the worst humans. He made the game ungovernable.
• Okay. I exaggerate.
• Final word. He’s magic but his ‘antics’ are a total, total disgrace. I think there is again a case for retrospective punishment or would be if the machinery was in place. (See ‘The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct’ vols 1-265).
• The game though; Liverpool were magnificent and irresistible again for most of the first half, playing both with authority and composure and also swiftly counterattacking. They mix it up; chase and run as well as pass all around. Generally though, they play with pace… and this feels threatening, especially with that crowd on board.
• That crowd by the way bore and bears them on, towards what Stevie G will no doubt privately be calling the title they deserve – they being the players, the club and supporters live and sadly departed. The skipper rightly gathered his men to collectivise spirits for the final push. They were told in no uncertain terms that there must be no ‘fucking slips’. The implications – powerful and maybe contradictory ones – being that the title belongs to them but they must battle invincibly to the fateful end.
• How wonderful that sport can be so huge.
• There are almost unbearably rich and tender emotions around the Hillsborough thing. The tragedy itself, the awful nature of events, plus the additional, cruel travesties which may yet transform how the majority of the (tabloid-reading?) public view our allegedly world-class police. There is much bitterness in this beautiful charge towards destiny.
• City came back. Silva suddenly flowered as Liverpool sat off. I lost a few friends on twitter by suggesting that the Reds wilted under the first meaningful pressure for 20 years – somewhat uncalled for perhaps but the point remains. The bitter enemy Manchester United have had to carry the burden of being title favourites and the team everyone wants to beat for an age. Liverpool dealt rather poorly with the rising threat to their first Premier League crown. City deserved to draw level and looked more likely to win it.
• Then, 80-odd minutes in, just about the finest defender in the league – Kompany – ballsed things up completely and Coutinho scored against the run of play.
• The rest was run-of-the-mill agony. For everyone.
• The roar at the final peep from Mr Clattenburg carried with it both triumph… and tears.

The Plight of The Swans.

The story broke nationally earlier that a fracas, accessorized street-gangster-stylee, had broken out on a Premier League training ground yesterday. Allegedly in this case we’re talking full-on foaming low-brow lunacy – i.e. ragamuffin with brick – as opposed to gold-toothed sophistohoodlum with diamond-encrusted firearm. Whilst this may arguably endow the event with a kind of old-school bunch-of-fives credibility, the whole shebang seems particularly absurd when traced to its geographic location – Swansea FC.

Prior to this un-Swansea outrage, the feeling has been that a side built in the dreamboat image of their manager have absolutely led the way as the most civil painters of precious doodles, or as makers of footie-as-sculpture, turning that theoretically dull, flat space (the pitch!) into kinetic, smoothly sensual linkages. If that makes them sound more like a love-object than a togger team, then so be it. Laudrup has developed the inherited football culture and this sense that material has been skilfully – artfully? – tweaked and moulded persists. Then they started getting beat. Then they started reaching for bricks – allegedly.

Suddenly and darkly, there’s the danger of tragedy interloping, via a) some geezer getting badly hurt b) The Swans going into unthinkably graceless free-fall. Even for neutrals, this is not happy territory.

It figures, of course, that any bitterness between Chico Flores and the former skipper Garry Monk will be appropriated from now ’til the end of the season as the sign – the moment – when the Swans terminal dance began. ‘Course they’re arguing – because the club is full of prima donnas!’ That may be the reaction from the cynics and from Cardiff, should the weeks claw away and the battle for survival harden. Personally I hope and trust that they will play their way out of this but the obvious argument against –that a team so apparently obsessed with football of the choicest kind may be less well-equipped than say Sam Allardyce’s mob to battle – rings true enough to worry us purists. But say it anyway; Swansea are good for the Prem and they deserve to do their classy lil’ thing.

Meanwhile t’other Welsh relegation contenders – also now led by a Scandinavian, remarkably – already sit in the bottom three. Despite some signs of encouragement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s crew were ultimately duffed up 4-2 at The Etihad, by a Manchester City side who look both profoundly capable and ready to take the title this year. Solskjaer will have to really work some restorative magic to keep his team afloat – they look rather cruelly short of quality all around the pitch – but he seems a good sort and both realistic about what may be necessary and up for the challenge. Critical may be who he, as a name, can bring in.

Pellegrini, on the other hand, is in sky-blue clover. Money has bought successive City regimes everything a manager could dream of but this one has shown the wit and the authority to corral the extravagant forces available. To the extent that they are now, unquestionably, amongst the elite handful of clubs chasing the pigs bladder anywhere.

Although it may be possible to imagine that amongst his brilliant mercenaries lack of loyalty for the club badge might cause the occasional blip in the next year or four, City seem perdy close to impregnable and should Aguerro or Toure depart elite replacements are no doubt, for this empire of the nouveau riche, buyable. The question then may be more about how prominent or even dominant might City be – and over how long a period – rather than whether they pip Arsenal or Chelsea this time round.

Down at The Emirates, the other birdlike senior presides over another fabulous and indeed intriguingly classically Gooniferous phenomenon. The perennial Norf Landun storyline, featuring dashed attractive football and an inevitable falling short is again emerging as the business end approaches. Only this time the falling has missed its reassuringly early cue so that we can’t quite be sure (can we? Can we?) that Wenger and co will again be damned to disappointment.

In fact a delicious tension is beginning to unwind, given the actual possibility that Arsenal may be in it to the death, as it were. Where once we had the certainty of failure, we now have something that twinkles with possibilities – something life-affirming, something which teases – and I for one think that’s great.

Okay on balance the brutal truth remains that the bulk of us fear recent history will again repeat; that because of the goddamn inviolability of Mourinho’s Chelsea and the power and depth available to Pellegrini, Arsenal will be undone. If like me you understand Arsenal/The Wenger Project as a worthier, more genuine and longer lasting investment than either of the other two candidates, that does seem unnecessarily cruel. However, a couple of things strike me;

  1. The Arsenal are far from hanging on in there in this title race – they are playing with too much zest and purpose for that.
  2. The Premier League run-in will be a far richer and more exciting place should Wenger’s side remain competitive to the last.

I say two candidates. And this is both disrespectful to Liverpool and contradicts my oft-repeated esteem for their gaffer, Brendan Rodgers. The former Swansea man has invented something so threatening at Liverpool that the Scousers have re-found their roar as well as their lust for the title. Rarely is the incongruously lame phrase that ‘anything is possible’ more appropriate than in the case of this Anfield side, where the world’s most deadly player and his medium tasty English sidekick do have the potential to radically unpick the wider narrative… only to find themselves (let’s say) two-down home to Villa after 40-odd minutes.

Rodger’s Liverpool can and will beat almost anyone on merit on any given day and can even go on the kind of run that snowballs towards glory. But, honestly… I don’t quite see them as Champions. His squad is palpably less impressive than Pellegrini’s in particular and the ‘Pool defence (and keeper?) is just too ordinary. Suarez-led, they have lit up the league; whether this claim is undermined by the Uruguayan’s propensity or ability (you call it) to gain free-kicks or penalties is, whichever way you judge it, one of the issues of the season.

Spurs, Everton and Manchester United are not contenders for the title; they must target Champions League Football instead. United, as always, draw the most coverage – just not here – where the subject is essentially top… Wales… and bottom.

Feel the noise.

The volume and the swelling, not to say rheumy quality of the furore around Manchester United is extraordinary. It’s fandom at its beery best; impassioned, breathlessly drunk on hope or revenge or rebellion; borne more or less ably by scribes and scallies like me.

You have to love all this transparently tribal nonsense. Despite being carried more now through the twittersphere than the turnstile, there’s something reassuringly organic about it. Human to shout cobblers and jeer; human to make godawful judgements around and maybe capital out of (sporting) misfortune. And just brilliant – brill-e-yunt – if you know where to draw the line; many don’t. I’m all in favour of the harmless dollop of spite and the fatuous four-hour argument, the deluge of opinion and the smidge, the flash of insight. We are blessed, in moments such as these, with a curious, maybe precious kind of purity as well as a coursing (or cursing) pomp. It’s the wit of the people; let’s cradle that blessing with our pints.

So – necessary caveats acknowledged – banter really is the lifeblood of sport; within reason, it’s great that folks can get stirred so monumentally by something so daft. And perhaps the level of truth in the event, the fact or otherwise of the Red Devil’s demise, becomes irrelevant. I might argue that the Glazer Thing is a far bigger deal than dropping five places down the league for a season but people don’t feel that, eh, generally? That’s dull by comparison – like facts.

What gives then, at United? Something pretty extraordinary maybe. Or maybe not? Is the level of alleged difficulty the club finds itself in truly remarkable, or no? Is it actually anything but a temporary slide – a media storm? – a blip? And what part exactly does the change of gaffer play in this? Amongst the Liverpudlian glee, the Mancunian angst, fury, loyalty and resignation, there’s certainly something going on. But significant story… or nowt? How much of this can we know to be real and how much is flimsy punditry… and feeding frenzy?

Such is the nature and profile of the United Project that levels of fascination, cruel rejoicing and bipolar vitriol are being recorded which could barely translate to other, theoretically similar scenarios. United have superceded Liverpool as the Footie Monolith, the god-club that overshadows the top division. They are that which must be rebelled against and now rebellion seems possible. Suddenly there is scope for bare-bellied fans and a brutally inclined texto-sphere to surge into something. Something which used to be the endless bulk of MUFC.

It hasn’t always been this way, remember. Once Liverpool were that black-hole of a beast, equally but differently awe-inspiring, perhaps more filled with magisterial cruisers than the flickers and sprinters from Old Trafford. Arsenal, Chelsea and now Manchester City aspire to but have never yet really grasped swallowing dominion in the way that United did – in the Ferguson era. But in any case, should Wenger or even Mourinho have inhaled or overshadowed all-comers to comparable extent, I suspect that the quality of response to their subsequent fall may have been different. Because a) this has been United b) this has been Ferguson’s team.

Sir Alex is remarkable in that (whilst at the helm) he really was a proper football man – fatherly but driven, instinctive, bellicose, inspirational – and yet much of football disliked or detested him. Outsiders refused, largely, to respect his genius, preferring instead to rub up against his bristling, one-eyed worldview. No wonder; Ferguson often seethed with contempt for opponents as well as journalists, making him a difficult man to warm to. Even the suspicion that both alcohol and the fieriest of passions fuelled his success failed to endear him to the non-MU universe (of hard-drinking, hot-headed footieblokes.) That blotchy fizzog, ablaze with paranoid focus, relentlessly chewing… yaaargh!

Even some United fans, aware of only occasional moments when the adversarial lapsed into something approaching gentlemanliness, found him difficult to love. Yet they worshiped – or fell in – because he presided, eventually, over a staggering period of consistent success, a phenomenon which arguably takes the man safely beyond judgement. (Or not?) Whichever, Sir Alex remains central still to the perception of most – he IS United. I say this more to describe the emotion around the current lack of form (and success) than to subsume any Moyes narrative. Moyes is clearly blameless in the fact of not being Ferguson and he may not wish to propel his side with the same bitter brilliance. But he will have to gee them up somehow – and sharpish.

The new man in knows he has problems. Perhaps they are larger than we on the outside are hearing or suspecting. Perhaps Rooney – currently so far ahead of the rest it’s almost unbelievable at such a gargantuan club – is close to walking? Perhaps Chelsea is looking a safer bet as well as a career-developing and reinvigorating lifestyle choice? I imagine words have been exchanged on the subject of prompt mega-signings and the scale of club ambition; if little changes in terms of key personnel (i.e. players) this month it really might mean mid-table drift for mighty Manchester United and Rooney may not be the only one who will not tolerate that.

Mid-table? Or at any rate out of the Champions League slots. Because Moyes has been simply unable to drive the thing. Whether he’s been bawling or building quietly, it hasn’t worked – not yet. Not only have the team looked tentative – and how the enemy has enjoyed seeing that! – they have looked unable or unwilling to compete with passion. And that’s a worry. It’s a non-negotiable that players play with heart – particularly when the prettier patterns desert them. Consequently, Moyes must very swiftly identify those who aren’t either good enough footballers or big enough humans to wear the shirt – the Manchester United shirt. And he must get shot of some of them, whilst bringing in two or three top, top players.

Let’s play the You Are The Manager game. Then ideally Nani – who’s recently signed a 5 year deal – and Kagawa would be first in the exit queue, for me, this transfer window. I appreciate most of the talk has surrounded the lack of midfield creativity but Kagawa has singularly failed to make an impact and Nani is such a flatterer/deceiver so often that for me, he would go. As could lots of them, in fact.

I don’t expect or recommend wholesale changes but you could make an argument for selling or phasing out each of Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Young, Giggs. Four of those mentioned are clearly beyond their peak and t’other has brought shame on the club more than once too often. Teams are all about balance and blend an in United’s case it may that they need only an elite level twinkler and possibly a pugnacious water-carrier in midfield… and Leighton Baines to compete again. (If Rooney stays… and if Evans and Jones man up in central defence – which I expect them to do.) About sixty million should cover it.

Moyes is not yet a failure and plainly it’s dumb to effectively call him out for not being Ferguson. He may straighten this out in time – and I do expect him to get time, surprisingly, perhaps. The concern is that in his dourness he may not have what it takes to lift individuals and a club of this magnitude. This is indeed a big month for Manchester United. Feel the noise.