With less than a month left to play, the sprint toward the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League title is finally clear. Arsenal, in the end, turned out to be who we thought they were. Chelsea’s petulance at Aston Villa and Crystal Palace will end up costing the Blues, who — sigh — will still probably wind up winning the Champions League thanks to Jose Mourinho’s on-going pact with Beelzebub.
It means Sunday’s tension-filled affair at Anfield between Liverpool and Manchester City (NBCSN, 8:30 a.m.) is likely going to decide whether there will be red or sky blue ribbons on the trophy come May 11. There’s still some basic math since City is still playing catch-up with games played. Here’s how it looks going into Sunday:
- Liverpool 74 points, 33 games played
- Chelsea 72 points, 33 games played
- Manchester City 70 points, 31 game played
Simple arithmetic: if Liverpool wins on Sunday it controls its own title fate in the final four matches of the season if it wins out. Should City take all three points, then Manuel Pellegrini’s side remains the favorites. City’s remaining games aren’t exactly imposing either: vs. Sunderland; vs. West Brom; at Crystal Palace; at Everton; vs. Aston Villa; vs. West Ham United. The irony here is the hardest game on the list is at Everton — Liverpool’s Merseyside rival. Liverpool, meanwhile, still have a match with Chelsea to look forward to later this month.
Adding a level of almost unfathomable drama, Liverpool will pay tribute to the 96 lives lost 25 years ago during the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989. (I don’t want to gloss over it and make note, ESPN will air a 30 for 30 documentary on Tuesday. Advance reviews from our own Ty Duffy say it’s a must-watch.) It sets up so that it’ll either turn out to be one of the better days in modern Liverpool history or something else entirely. The nervous energy coursing through the stadium — and Reds fans across the globe — will be extremely high. Try to make sure you’re awake in time for the pregame version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Given that NBC does a generally fantastic job covering soccer and respects its viewers we’ll likely get to see the entire rendition minus any addition commentary.
If anything all the external tension should sent up for an especially frenetic, rock ’em, sock ’em typical Premier League top-tier encounter — heaven help us the referees don’t put their stamp on this one as is their natural wont. The two sides have combined for 174 goals, which is frankly absurd. Liverpool has 90 while City checks in with 84. Chelsea, in distant third, has 65 which shows you how insane these two teams have been when everything is clicking offensively.
City might have Sergio Agüero back after a long injury layoff, which helps lessen the burden on Eden Dzeko or the suddenly anonymous Alvaro Negredo. City tends to dominate possession, but that style might help Liverpool. If the Reds are super-charged like they were vs. Arsenal and press City into turnovers, it’ll create space on the break for Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling to punish the opposition.
How Pellegrini approaches the match, bears watching. Will he take a page from Mourinho and play it close to the vest, trying to squeeze out a tight, low-scoring game, eventually wearing down the Reds and picking a hole in their defense? If Liverpool is able to isolate Martin Demichelis on the break, it could get ugly. Conversely Liverpool might not be able to blunt Yaya Toure’s influence on the match.
We know how Brendan Rodgers will have Liverpool lined up: attack mode. The question is, at the end of 90 minutes, will Liverpool’s suspect defense hold on tight enough to eek out a one-goal advantage on the scoreboard.
However you want to bill it, this is the Game of the Year in the Premier League.