The Reds let the title slip five years ago by losing at home to Chelsea on the same day City won at Crystal Palace – could the roles now be reversed?
We’ve been here before.
Liverpool and Manchester City. Barely a cigarette paper to separate them at the top of the Premier League. Everything at stake.
An April afternoon. Liverpool hosting Chelsea while City travel to Crystal Palace. The eyes of the world descending on Merseyside and South London. Watching and waiting.
We know what happened last time, of course. The events of April 2014, and these exact pair of fixtures, are still sung about today. By City and Chelsea fans, at least.
Liverpool supporters, meanwhile, will approach Sunday’s game with trepidation, and no wonder.
The memories of five years ago – of Steven Gerrard’s slip, Demba Ba’s finish and Jose Mourinho’s crowing – are hard to forget. The mere sight of Chelsea at Anfield will be enough to open a few old wounds this weekend, for sure.
Before that, of course, eyes and ears will be on Selhurst Park, where City shoot first against a dangerous but inconsistent Palace side.
Pep Guardiola’s men were defeated when the sides met at the Etihad back in December, and know that anything other than victory this time would hand the impetus to Liverpool, who kick off immediately after that game finishes.
It was the other way round five years ago, when Liverpool’s loss was compounded by a City win. Brendan Rodgers, crestfallen, disbelieving, had brought his brave face to his post-match press conference that day.
But as he arrived in the old media room at Anfield, he glanced up at the TV screen on the wall. As he did, Yaya Toure gave City an advantage they would not surrender – both at Palace and in the title race.
Mourinho had already been and gone at that point. Unshaven and dressed – unusually for him and for the weather – in hoodie, gillet, tracksuit and trainers, the Chelsea manager had revelled in his role as party-pooper.
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“They wanted the clowns!” he had yelled after his side’s 2-0 victory. Earlier, he had celebrated Willian’s clinching goal by running down the Anfield touchline towards the away supporters, beating his chest as he went. If title races throw up heroes, they also bring villains to the fore.
“Beware of the bug,” Mourinho cackled at his own press conference. He’d been laid low by flu that week – hence the scruffiness and the fact he travelled to Liverpool separately to his players – and made sure he coughed a few germs towards the assembled media before he left. It wasn’t his finest moment.
Before boarding his team’s coach, Mourinho found time for one more dig. Approaching a legendary Liverpool figure outside Anfield’s Main Stand, he stretched out his arms in disbelief.
“I gave you a point!” he shouted. “Why didn’t you just take it?!”
Mourinho and Chelsea had arrived with more than just the flu. They carried a resentment, too, towards Liverpool, whom they felt were receiving preferable treatment from not only the media, but from referees as well. “It felt the country wanted Liverpool to be champion,” Mourinho said.
A row over the timing of the fixture added extra spice. Chelsea had wanted to move the game from Sunday to Saturday, on account of their upcoming Champions League semi-final with Atletico Madrid.
Requests to the Premier League and to Sky Sports went ignored, as did a late plea to Liverpool. “I think if we play the day before, I don’t think we play with the same spirit as the Sunday,” Mourinho would later say. In typical fashion, he used the dispute as motivation.
He also made sure his team were the ultimate nuisance. He rested several star men – Eden Hazard, Petr Cech, Oscar, Ramires and John Terry were left out, while Willian and Gary Cahill started on the bench.
Tomas Kalas – “a player for training” – made his Premier League debut in defence, while the veteran Mark Schwarzer was in goal. A 21-year-old Egyptian named Mohamed Salah started on the right flank.
Mourinho’s tactics were clear. They set up with a rigid, tight-as-tight back four, screened by two specialist holding midfielders in Jon Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic.
The aim was to stop Liverpool building momentum through a fast start, to frustrate and to stifle. “They parked two buses,” grimaced Rodgers, but it worked.
As early as the fifth minute, Schwarzer was wasting time over a goal kick, something he revealed this week had been instructed by Mourinho.
Soon after, Mourinho was grappling with Gerrard and Jon Flanagan, holding the ball to prevent a quick throw-in. Anfield, accustomed to high-speed, at times frenzied football, was tetchy, nervous, irate.
A draw would keep Liverpool in control, but they were not comfortable playing for it. Their success, an 11-game winning run, had been built on the front foot.
Gerrard’s slip in first-half stoppage time, of course, meant Mourinho got the pay-off for his spoiling tactics. Liverpool rarely looked like recovering from that body blow, their second-efforts crumbling amid a wave of speculative shots, hopeful crosses and dreadful corners.
By the time Fernando Torres galloped clear to set up Willian for the clincher, Anfield was resigned to its fate. Rodgers’ reign never recovered.
This time, Liverpool will hope for roles reversed. It is they who head into the weekend top, but City who hold the key to the door. It is Guardiola’s side, with a game in hand, who have their destiny in their own hands.
That could change by 6.30pm on Sunday, of course. The same can be said for every weekend, but this one feels like it could be a decisive one.
The day the Premier League was decided? Time will tell.
Liverpool will just hope the memories of this April afternoon are sweeter than five years ago…