Say what you like about Sky Sports – within the bounds of libel laws and common decency, obviously, you filthy-mouthed animal – but they know how football works. They know where the buttons are; they know what makes the ordinary fan tick. To any other television company, this weekend’s Premier League scheduling might have been a curiosity, something to mention in passing. But Sky, bouncing from the success of Red Monday a few months ago, saw their chance to create a whole new institution from whole cloth:
MANCHESTER VS. MERSEYSIDE!
This new rivalry for a new era of football began in Liverpool, where Everton became the latest team to notice that Manchester City aren’t very good. All teams have their weaknesses, of course; even Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team couldn’t cope with volcanoes or tax-filing deadlines. But Everton, like Leicester City last month, brutally exposed the two glaring problems that City have: their defence is extremely vulnerable to direct passes through the channels or over the top, and their goalkeeper doesn’t exist.
The former is almost certainly a consequence of City’s decision to try and get through the season with four aged and semi-knackered full-backs – one of whom is now a midfielder – the Vincent Kompany Rehabilitation Project, Nicolas Otamendi’s haircut, and John Stones, who seems to be the subject of a cruel prank on the part of the universe. England’s most talented defender for years spends a couple of seasons with Roberto Martinez, and now has to cope with this shambles. In front of them, Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure, an excellent midfield partnership. In five-a-side. In 2012.
As for Claudio Bravo, well, there’s not much left to say. He clearly doesn’t like saving the ball, and given that he’s Pep Guardiola’s chosen keeper, we can probably assume that this is some kind of aesthetic or moral objection. Perhaps victories come all the sweeter when they’re achieved with a goalkeeper who has a passing completion rate of 100%, yet seems to be made of fog. Or perhaps Guardiola’s dropped a massive one.
Anyway, back to the rivalry. After the final whistle, Everton fans streamed in their thousands to the pubs around Goodison Park, pausing only to swap their blue scarves for red ones. “Four nil up after the first leg,” they whispered excitedly to one another. “Surely we’ve got this in the bag.” Meanwhile the despondent City fans pulled on their POGBAHIMOVIKHTARYAN shirts, hooked up their transistor radios, and looked to Old Trafford for a miracle.
They didn’t get one. Jurgen Klopp’s clever plan worked to perfection, Liverpool’s midfield sat on Michael Carrick, and Manchester United couldn’t get going. We’ll never know whether Klopp anticipated that Paul Pogba would do something inexplicable in his own penalty area, but given that he’s a man who likes to win football matches and Liverpool didn’t really look like scoring any other way, we have to assume so.
United roared back in the second half. Well, sort of roared. Snorted, perhaps. Snuffled. Mourinho decided to ignore Marcus Rashford, who has been brilliant from the bench in recent weeks, and instead brought Wayne Rooney onto the field at half-time. We can only assume that this was an attempt to get N*rrative involved in the game, to try to harness the inevitability of Rooney breaking Bobby Charlton’s record against Liverpool. It failed. The record will come against Wigan in the cup, and everybody will be a bit underwhelmed.
More successful was the introduction of Marouane Fellaini, who — along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic — spearheaded United’s late, aerial assault. The problem with long ball football like this isn’t that it’s reductive or ugly or in some way wrong; all goals count the same, even ones that involve Fellaini, and Liverpool looked fairly discomfited by the approach. Luckily for them, United weren’t particularly clever with it, and only managed the equaliser.
No, the problem with long ball football is what happens afterwards. Because obviously Klopp had to make a thing out of it, and obviously Mourinho had to make a thing back, and obviously everybody then decided to take this all very seriously and start counting long passes and getting into questions of sporting morality and hypocrisy. A fight to the death between “You paid all that money for that?” vs. “Didn’t you lot have Steven Caulker up front once?” When in truth, neither manager really cares. Both are just going through the motions that come after a slightly disappointing, slightly relieving result.
But in day’s real contest, it ended Merseyside 5-1 Manchester. To the victor goes the spoils: the entire of the northwest of the country has been renamed The Greater Liverton Conurbation; Warrington has been moved one mile to the left; and Steven Gerrard is now legally permitted to graze his sheep on any green space within the city limits of Manchester. Giant statues of Dixie Dean have been erected along the M62 which has been renamed the Molby62.
Meanwhile the clever mi