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May 2014

Week 40 – A to Z of 2013-14 (Premier League column for Goal Japan)

20 May 2014(Tue)

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The current season of Foot! TUESDAY concludes this week with an A-to-Z look back over the highs, lows, and talking points from the Premier League in 2013/14. Below is a more detailed explanation of all 26 items, including several that we did not have time to discuss properly on the show.


A = Ashley (and Alan)

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The Mike Ashley era at Newcastle United has already brought one relegation, in 2009, plus a further dalliance with the drop last year. But at least in those seasons, the Magpies had something to fight for. Eschewing investment or the distraction of cup runs for a safe, mid-table finish made for a depressingly turgid campaign for the Toon Army, not least after the departure in late January of Yohan Cabaye. Manager Alan Pardew objected to the manner of the Frenchman’s sale, but compromised his own reputation with an idiotic headbutt on David Meyler of Hull City.


B = Barkley

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Ross Barkley spent most of the 2012/13 season on loan at Championship clubs Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. This term, he came to symbolise an exciting new era for his parent club Everton under David Moyes’s successor Roberto Martinez. The Toffees soon developed into a high-quality, attractive outfit under the Spaniard, passing the ball quickly and accurately while making ever more effective use of their dangerous overlapping full backs. 20-year-old Barkley registered 34 league appearances and six goals, including a wonder strike against Manchester City which left no doubt over his World Cup inclusion.


C = Crazy high lines, crazy scorelines

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André Villas-Boas does enjoy a high defensive line. Unfortunately, he can be stubborn enough to field one even if the right players are unavailable or haven’t been signed (see L). Manchester City had great fun exploiting all the space behind to hammer Spurs 6-0 at the Etihad, and when Liverpool ran out 5-0 winners at White Hart Lane three weeks later, the Portuguese’s time was up. His lesson was not always heeded, however. Arsenal were humiliated in similar fashion at Anfield (5-1) and at Chelsea (6-0), while in Tottenham’s return match with City under Tim Sherwood, they were once again routed 5-1.


D = Double parked buses

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Just how do you stop the rampant attacking speed of Liverpool? Brendan Rodgers complained after his side’s 2-0 home defeat at the end of April that Chelsea had parked two buses, claiming, “I don’t think it's a tactic to have players behind the ball – anyone can do that.” Surely if it was so easy, then everyone would have done the same thing. While the Blues may have been somewhat cynical with time-wasting ploys to deny their opponents rhythm, the truth was that José Mourinho had pulled off an absolute, and quite deliberate masterclass in defensive organisation. Rodgers’s men fell into the trap, attacking relentlessly and leaving themselves exposed to one mistake and counter when a draw would have kept the title initiative at Anfield.


E = Eleven straight wins

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Despite the agonising manner in which it all came apart at the end, Liverpool’s rampant resurgence under Rodgers was surely the story of the season. The opening 20 minutes against Arsenal in early February, when Liverpool raced into a 4-0 lead, was the most thrilling exhibition of attacking brilliance witnessed in English football for years. But the Reds kept on going to string out a run of 11 straight wins, during which they scored 38 goals and repeatedly redefined their status – from Champions League hopefuls to Champions League certs, title contenders, and in April, title favourites.


F = Fellaini

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12 league starts, no goals, and just one assist. Marouane Fellaini became the poster boy for Manchester United’s many failings under David Moyes. But it was not all about the manager. The resignation of chief executive David Gill left rookie Ed Woodward in charge of transfer activity during pre-season, and to put it generously, the whole experience was an utter embarrassment. United flirted publicly with Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcântara, and Leighton Baines but didn’t get close to a signature for any of them. This left them in a panic to sign Fellaini moments before the August transfer window closed for £27.5 million – fully four million quid more than would have triggered a contractual release clause one month previously.


G = Giggs

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Pretty much the only good thing the Stretford End had to cheer about this season was the appointment of club legend Ryan Giggs as interim manager for the final four games of the season. It didn’t solve United’s problems overnight but it did provide a wonderfully sentimental epilogue to the Class of ’92 tale – Giggs even used the opportunity to offer debuts to youth team graduates Tom Lawrence and James Wilson, who scored twice, against Hull City. That game proved to be his 963rd and last in a red shirt; a new era at Old Trafford begins next season with Giggs serving as assistant to new boss Louis van Gaal.


H = Hart

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The increasingly erratic form of Joe Hart became a major problem in the latter days of Roberto Mancini’s time at Manchester City, and for a while under Manuel Pellegrini, things didn’t get much better. Errors from England’s number one led directly to goals conceded against Cardiff City, Aston Villa, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea – after which Hart was removed from first team action for a month. This proved to be a genius piece of man management. The goalkeeper rebuilt his confidence on the training ground away from all the pressure, and re-emerged as a calming presence after his gradual reintroduction in December, keeping ten clean sheets in City’s last 22 league games.


I = I’m the happy one

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“I’m the happy one” declared José Mourinho upon his much feted return to Stamford Bridge, despite the suspicion that he had rather hoped to be unveiled at Old Trafford instead. The former Real Madrid manager did not have an ideal squad, with his old charges either departed or aging, but tactical triumphs against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool took Chelsea to the brink of an unlikely title double. However, Mourinho’s smile turned more and more into a frown as he publicly lambasted key players such as Eden Hazard, Oscar, and André Schürrle. The Blues picked up a total of just one point from late season games against struggling Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, and Norwich City – had they won even two of those four, they would have been champions.


J = Jacko

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Former Harrods supremo Mohamed Al-Fayed sold Fulham to Shahid Khan in July, but warned the Pakistani-American billionaire never to remove his infamous statue of Michael Jackson – “It is a lucky thing, you will regret it later; you will pay with blood for that because it was something loved by people.” While most people who came to look at the statue weren’t quite smiling for the same reason as Al-Fayed, perhaps the former owner did have a point. The Cottagers endured a nightmare season under Martin Jol, Rene Meulensteen, and finally Felix Magath which spelled the end of their 13-year stay in England’s top flight.


K = Kieran Gibbs sees red

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This column’s choice for save of the season and unluckiest red card of the season would probably both go to the same incident. The sending off of Kieran Gibbs after a quarter of an hour left Arsenal a man and 3-0 down – it eventually became 6-0 – in Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th match in charge away to Chelsea. But as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain desperately protested in vain to official Andre Marriner, “Ref! It was me!” The Ox had been the outfield player on the goal line making the acrobatic dive to spectacularly tip Eden Hazard’s curling effort around the post, but a case of mistaken identity made for one of the most bizarre talking points of the season.


L = Levy

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Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy is a famously tough negotiator, and managed to coax football’s first nine-figure fee (in Euros) out of Real Madrid when finally sanctioning the transfer of Gareth Bale last August. The cash was boldly spent on fully seven senior international recruits – an approach that would still have been risky even if Spurs had chosen the players André Villas-Boas actually wanted. Levy dispensed with the Portuguese before the new team had time to take shape, appointed Tim Sherwood as his permanent successor, then undermined the former Blackburn Rovers title-winning captain at every opportunity to make his position untenable by season’s end. A little more consistency of thought in the White Hart Lane boardroom mightn’t go amiss.


M = Moyes

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Oh dear. There probably isn’t a great deal left to say about one of the season’s most defining characters, who took the reigning champions – a club that hadn’t finished outside the top three since 1991 – down to seventh. Relatively speaking, David Moyes wasn’t even placed under that much pressure at Manchester United – the board wanted to give him time, the Old Trafford faithful wanted to give him time, and rival fans certainly wanted him to stay in charge for as long as possible. But the Scot looked awestruck from day one and never managed to impose his personality, previously thought of as a strong point, on the team. Every time his supporters – including this column – cited a reason to stick with him, he frustrated us by immediately disproving it. By the end, his sacking had simply become inevitable.


N = Nicola Cortese

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In the last 20 years, few men in suits have ever been so revered by players and fans as the former Southampton executive chairman Nicola Cortese. Having overhauled the Saints’ entire management structure to rectify cash flow and oversee two successive promotions, he refused to agree with ex-manager Nigel Adkins that Premier League survival should be the extent of their ambition. Instead, he scouted Mauricio Pochettino, and the result has been an eighth-place finish – equalling the club record in the Premier League era – for a hugely attractive team built around young English talent. Cortese’s ultimate goal was to win the title; what will happen to Southampton now he has departed remains to be seen.


O = Özil

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A, perhaps the major reason that Arsenal were unable to remain in title contention into spring was their failure to add genuine depth last summer, meaning that certain key players were never afforded a rest while injuries mounted around them. One such player was Mesut Özil, but let us not forget the galvanising effect his shock £42.5 million arrival on August deadline day had on the Gunners over the first half of the season. An assist for Olivier Giroud in the 11th minute of his debut against Sunderland was a perfect introduction for the German, and with Aaron Ramsey in particularly sparkling form, Arsène Wenger’s newly confident charges pulled out a five-point lead at the top in early December.


P = Palace and Pulis

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Crystal Palace had been relegated in every single one of their previous four Premier League seasons, and looked set to make it five in a row after a summer of panic buying left them with more new arrivals than they could fit in their squad of 25. The stress of it all was too much for Ian Holloway, and when Tony Pulis took over in November, the Eagles were bottom on just seven points from 12 matches. But the former Stoke City boss worked miracles, shoring up the defence and trimming down the playing resources to leave an altogether more functioning unit. With Scott Dann forming a strong partnership alongside Damien Delaney at the back and Mile Jedinak starring in midfield, Palace accumulated 36 points from their first 23 games under Pulis and guaranteed survival with a different kind of five in a row – successive wins.


Q = Qualification

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With each of last season’s leading three clubs changing manager, this always looked like it would be a good year for other teams to take a shot at the Champions League places, and so it proved as Liverpool made it in for the first time since 2009. Tottenham Hotspur and particularly Everton gave it a good shot too, but both were forced to settle for the dubious secondary honour of Europa League qualification and Thursday night visits to far-flung locations. Manchester United failed to secure any kind of European football for the first time since 1981 – excluding the five-year period when English clubs were banned after the Heysel disaster – but may enjoy the same benefits of week-long preparations for league games as Liverpool did this term.


R = Rodgers

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Tony Pulis was a deserving Manager of the Year, but Brendan Rodgers at least warranted a share of the prize. Liverpool’s malaise had been chronic for over two decades before the Northern Irishman arrived with his four P’s – possession, penetration, pressure, and patience – and gradually evolved his style into a more counter-attacking approach than at Swansea City to take maximum advantage of the pacy attacking players available to him at Anfield. Rodgers showed great intelligence and flexibility this season, adjusting his tactics week by week to exploit the weaknesses of each individual opponent, and struck gold when fielding Steven Gerrard at the base of midfield to allow the likes of Jordan Henderson greater freedom to express themselves further ahead. He will learn from his mistakes against Chelsea and come back stronger next term.


S = Slips

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“This does not fucking slip now!” was an unfortunate choice of words given what was to follow. Liverpool were initially annoyed with the television crews who captured Steven Gerrard’s private moment with his teammates after the dramatic 3-2 win over Manchester City, but soon backed down, realising that this scene could go down in history as the most emotive, symbolic moment of a first championship campaign in 24 years. Two weeks later, it was Gerrard who slipped and let Demba Ba in to score for Chelsea, thereby providing an altogether more unfortunate moment to live long in the memory. It was here that the momentum in this season’s title race swung decisively and for the final time.


T = Twenty-somethings

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Manchester City did not always attract the attention their play deserved, overshadowed as they were by the resurgence of Arsenal before Christmas and Liverpool’s swashbuckling title charge in the second half of the season. But the sheer figures they have posted under Manuel Pellegrini have been astonishing. City totalled 102 goals in the league alone, one more than Liverpool, while their tally of 156 in all competitions was the highest recorded by any club in English football history. Perhaps the most telling statistic of their all-round attacking brilliance, however, was that as many as four each broke the magic 20-goal barrier – Sergio Agüero top scoring with 28 in all competitions, followed by Edin Džeko on 26, Yaya Touré on 24, and Álvaro Negredo with 23.


U = Uruguayans

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Luis Suárez began the season as a pariah, midway through a ten-match ban for biting Branislav Ivanović and trying to force through a late-August move to Arsenal or elsewhere. He finished it with 31 league goals, fully ten more than strike partner Daniel Sturridge (who finished second in the overall rankings) and tying the record for a 38-game Premier League season held by Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo. At the other end of the table, his compatriot Gustavo Poyet began the season out of work following an acrimonious departure from Brighton and Hove Albion, and claimed Sunderland needed a “miracle” to survive when defeat to Everton left his new charges seven points adrift of safety with a month of the season remaining. The Uruguayan quickly produced one, however, winning four points from two away matches in Manchester either side of becoming the first manager ever to take all three from José Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.


V = Vincent Tan

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The Premier League has had more than its share of intelligent, rich entrepreneurs who were nonetheless stupid enough to expect their business success to translate directly into football trophies. Vincent Tan is the latest in this proud line, although the dark glasses, belt pulled up to the nipples, and dragon-coloured Cardiff City shirt over work shirt combo gives him the best Bond villain look of any unwanted owner to date. The Malaysian sanctioned the arrival of five new first team players in the summer, but appeared startled that this wasn’t enough to blow away all comers so unashamedly set about undermining the manager who had achieved promotion and kept them out of the Premier League bottom three, Malky Mackay. Confusingly, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was then given enough money to bring in seven more new faces, but the mid-season disruption saw Cardiff pick up just 13 points from their last 22 games to finish bottom.


W = We love you

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The plaudits for Crystal Palace should not stop at the players and manager. The fans at Selhurst Park were magnificent throughout, singing and dancing loudly and proudly even while their team lost nine of the first ten, before providing a rousing backdrop to the most incredible match of the season. When Damien Delaney’s speculative shot brought Palace back to 1-3 against Liverpool, the Holmesdale Road end erupted into its St. Pauli-inspired “We love you, we love you, we love you” song – instantly upping the ante and virtually sucking the ball back towards Simon Mignolet’s goal. The Reds crumbled to the pressure of their raucous surroundings and a new Premier League classic was born.


X = X-files

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Not so much in the supernatural sense of the American television drama, but certainly in terms of vital information mysteriously kept secret by the authorities. An administrative error led Sunderland to field Ji Dong-Won in four league matches without receiving international clearance, for which the usual penalty is for all points gained during the matches in question to be docked regardless of circumstance. But after the club admitted their mistake to the Premier League, all parties agreed to settle with a fine and keep the matter hushed. The Black Cats ultimately survived by a more comfortable margin than the single point they had gained with the Korean forward, rendering any potential appeal from relegated Norwich City moot. But what of Oxford City, who dropped to the seventh tier by two points after having three deducted for a similar offence? Why one rule for the top clubs and another for those lower down the pyramid?


Y = Yaya Touré

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Yaya Touré was not always given licence to roam under Roberto Mancini, particularly last season after Nigel de Jong was sold and the Ivorian was asked to sit back with the rest of the team. This season, however, he was unleashed by new manager Manuel Pellegrini, who brought in Fernandinho to perform the lion’s share of defensive duties in midfield so that Touré would have more leeway to get forward. The 31-year-old had never previously bettered six league goals in any league season throughout a career which has taken him to Belgium, Ukraine, Greece, France, and Spain, but more than tripled his previous best with a final tally of 20 – placing him third in the Premier League goal rankings behind the SAS at Liverpool. Piece of cake.


Z = Zanryū

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If anything, the Japanese word zanryū is shallower in nuance than the English ‘survival’, but it does carry the major advantage of beginning with a ‘Z’. Norwich City ultimately left themselves with too much left to do ahead of late season matches with Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal – but in the process they saved a number of rivals who had done little of their own accord to really merit another season in the top flight. West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, West Ham United, and even Swansea City must perform a lot better next term if they are to avoid the drop again. Hull City will be proud of their first year back in the Premier League, but it might now be tricky to balance domestic demands with the Europa League.


(All images via original article at Goal Japan)

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Week 39 – I even love saying the word ‘team’(2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

12 May 2014(Mon)

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As a club, Manchester City tend not to garner much sympathy with the neutral. They may not have started the age of billionaires, which of course dates back to the Russian revolution at Stamford Bridge, and they certainly haven’t warped the competitive environment of English football to anything like the extent of the Qatari sports investments across the Channel. But at least Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain had a decent, recent pedigree of challenging for honours domestically and internationally before all the money. It was rather more of a shock to the national conscience when Sheikh Mansour rolled up at Eastlands – later relabelled the Etihad – in 2008 with a blank cheque for a mid-table side which had been playing in the third tier just nine years previously and hadn’t so much as challenged for a major trophy since the mid-1970s.

Such was the haste of City’s rise that they arrived in the Champions League two seasons ago without any significant UEFA coefficient to speak of, consigning them – much to their public chagrin – to a succession of groups of death before finally reaching the last 16 this term. They are the only Premier League representatives among the list of nine teams currently facing sanctions under the Financial Fair Play legislation, and unlike the other eight, they run the risk of even tighter penalties after refusing to accept culpability and agree a settlement before last Friday’s deadline. As David Conn of The Observer put it, Mansour’s executives have created “a modern, corporate sports organisation, growing accustomed to getting what it wants”.

This season, on the pitch, City were perhaps not quite cast in the role of villains per se. (If anyone was, it was probably José Mourinho for his steady descent from ‘Happy One’ to grumpy one coupled with all that bus parking – although this writer felt that Chelsea’s tactics and execution at Anfield were magnificent.) But they were emphatically not the heroes of the narrative either. That status fell originally to Arsenal, and then more enduringly to Liverpool – the purveyors of attractive, attacking football who would take on and overcome the giant financial empires without so much as a single oil well. As Brendan Rodgers’s side went on that awesome run of 11 straight wins, with 38 goals scored, the British media and even television commentators on the international match broadcasts spoke of little more than the prospect of a first championship in 24 years for Liverpool; a first ever, at last, for Steven ‘Stevie G’ Gerrard.

But none of this has much to do with the human beings involved on matchday – the actual players, coaches, and managers. Their concern is not with narratives or balance sheets, but with playing and winning. The champion team – not club – is the one that plays the best, wins the most, and demonstrates itself to be the strongest over the course of a full season. And, on this most basic of parameters, Manchester City are indisputably deserving of the title this year.

Manuel Pellegrini inherited a divided dressing room after several key players had fallen out with Roberto Mancini, who seemingly lost faith with the attacking ways that won (but so nearly blew) the 2011/12 Premier League and so tinkered, negatively and seldom successfully, with his tactics. The Chilean, however, kept things simple but effective. A basic 4-4-2, with certain morphological adjustments reflecting the traits of those playing at any time, served as the sufficient template for City to dominate the majority of domestic opponents with their own offensive qualities.

Castrated by more defensive duties in the latter Mancini era after the Italian’s bizarre decision to sell Nigel de Jong, Yaya Toure thrived alongside new arrival Fernandinho in midfield; registering nine assists and 20 goals in the league alone. In the eyes of most observers, the Ivorian’s triumphant return to prominence ranked him as the only true rival to Luis Suárez in the player of the year stakes. Up front, Álvaro Negredo arrived with a similar goal record in Spain to Spurs signing Roberto Soldado but adapted to English football far quicker to form a devastating pairing with Sergio Agüero. By the time the Argentine injured his calf during the 6-3, mid-December shellacking of Arsenal, the sky blue strike duo had already racked up 32 goals between them.

At the back, there was initial uncertainty as injuries – most notably to Vincent Kompany – saw City field seven different centre-back combinations in the first 11 league games. Only four points were collected from six away fixtures during this period, with the general sense of defensive instability categorised by a succession of high-profile mistakes from Joe Hart against Cardiff City, Aston Villa, and Chelsea. But here, Pellegrini demonstrated his calm man-management capabilities, removing his number one goalkeeper from the firing line for a month before gradually reintroducing him over the course of another once confidence and focus had been restored on the training ground.

Hart’s return coincided with a devastating spell of form either side of Christmas during which City won 11 and drew one of a dozen league matches. Building upon the newly solidified foundations behind them, Agüero and company managed to net 40 goals in the process – an awesome rate of prowess that matches the more celebrated springtime form of Suárez, Sturridge, and Sterling.

And it was in the final months of the season that their most champion-like qualities shone through. The much-criticised Martín Demichelis demonstrated terrific organisational focus to see through a 2-0 win at Hull City after Kompany had been sent off inside ten minutes. Experience of past title races was an advantage over Liverpool, and in hindsight, the 3-2 reverse at Anfield masked the manner in which City’s second half comeback had severely tested the mettle of their hosts until Kompany’s late error. It was sad that it should take an infamous slip from Gerrard against Chelsea to absolve the similarly respected Belgian, but Pellegrini’s men still had to seize their opportunity in a difficult away clash with Crystal Palace later that day. Three coolly earned points there, and a week later at Everton, underscored a swing of psychological momentum their way ahead of Liverpool’s own, eventful trip to Selhurst Park.

With Edin Džeko now leading the line with a succession of crucial goals late in the season, City won when it mattered most and ultimately breezed across the line on final day with far greater ease than two years ago. For all their economic advantages, the Citizens have performed remarkably in Pellegrini’s first season in charge to score 102 Premier League goals – one more than even Liverpool – and concede fewer than anyone else bar Chelsea. The Reds and the Blues made it a thrilling battle, but on the pitch, where the football is played, it was the men from Manchester who emerged as most worthy champions.

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Week 38 – We seldom score ten (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

6 May 2014(Tue)

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Crystal Palace’s astonishing fightback to draw 3-3 on Monday night spelt weeklong peril for all fingernails and blood pressure levels on Merseyside. Suppose, as most do, that Manchester City avoid defeat in their penultimate home fixture with Aston Villa on Wednesday. The re-usurped former leaders Liverpool will then go into the last Sunday of the Premier League season praying for a miracle, anxiously waiting on results from elsewhere, with radios tuned to events at the Etihad, or whichever other of the endlessly sprouted, final-day clichés you happen to prefer. Even if Manuel Pellegrini’s men were to drop two points in either of their remaining fixtures, the Reds would surely still miss out by the most agonising of margins that is goal difference.

Yet such talk is based on the more inherent assumption that the goal difference difference – currently nine – is unassailable. But is it, really? On last week’s Foot! TUESDAY, when I said it would be brilliant to see what might happen if Liverpool ended up needing a 10-0 victory over Newcastle United to win the league, I wasn’t joking. I was actually being serious. It would be brilliant to watch, because no matter how unlikely, the turnaround is tantalisingly possible.

Of course, nobody has ever hit double figures in a Premier League match. No English top flight team has at all since Boxing Day 1963, when Ipswich Town were the victims of a 10-1 thrashing at Fulham. Since the division was relabelled and relaunched in 1992, the greatest margin of victory remains the Andy Cole-inspired 9-0 win for Manchester United against, ah, poor old Ipswich again in March 1995. Tottenham Hotspur also came within one of a new digit for the scoreboard when routing Wigan Athletic 9-1 in November 2009, while there have been 8-0 scorelines for Newcastle against Sheffield Wednesday in September 1999, Chelsea over Wigan in May 2010, and Chelsea again versus Villa in December 2012. Yet for over half a century now, that magic ‘10’ figure has remained elusive.

However, there is a rather crucial caveat here. No Premier League team has ever scored ten before, but no Premier League team has ever had to score ten before either.

League matches are, in 99% of cases, more about the victory itself than about the margin of victory. When, as for example Liverpool did at home to Arsenal back in February, one team quickly runs up four or five to put the result beyond doubt, they will typically then take their foot off the pedal. Spare the opponents’ embarrassment, perhaps give one or two youngsters or fringe players (like Jordon Ibe and Iago Aspas against the Gunners) a run out off the bench, and rest up ahead of important games ahead. But what if there were no other games ahead? What if there was an actual need to continue attacking even once you have led by five, six, or seven? Just how many could you score if your title aspirations depended upon it?

There are not many case studies to go on. But there was one just this past Saturday, north of the border, which offers an excellent reference point to those at Anfield.

Hamilton Academical went into the final day of the second-tier Scottish Championship season two points behind leaders Dundee, with more goals scored but an inferior goal difference to the tune of eight. A win would give Accies the title if Dundee lost at home to Dumbarton, but would leave the pair level on points if the latter game was drawn. Hamilton decided to leave nothing to chance and tore into their opponents, bottom side Greenock Morton, from the first whistle. They were two up inside eight minutes, 5-1 in front by half time, and kept up the exact same rate of scoring over the final 45 minutes to win the match by a club record score of 10-2.

I say they left nothing to chance – the only trouble was that Dundee held onto a narrow 2-1 win to clinch the trophy and automatic promotion by two points. But the example is still valid. Hamilton knew they had to win by at least eight to be in a position to take advantage of a Dundee draw, and in that knowledge, they were able to do just that. An older, more notorious example was that of Spain in the qualifying matches for Euro 1984, who needed an 11-goal victory over Malta to overhaul the Netherlands and steal their place at the Finals in France. In front of 18,871 people on a chilly December evening in Seville, the Spaniards duly won 12-1.

The prospect of an Anfield goal chase is not something which has occurred to me alone. Ahead of that six-goal thriller at Selhurst Park, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers declared: “If there is any team that can score goals and turn it around it will be us. There is no question. That will be our aim. No question about that. I have seen it before. Chelsea beat Wigan 8-0 in the last game of the season. I am not paying any disrespect to Newcastle at all but if there is a team that has shown it can score goals, it is us. We are not a 1-0 team.”

This approach may ironically have proved their undoing against Palace, but respect or disrespect aside, the Northern Irishman could not have hand-picked a better fixture for the final day than Newcastle at home. Three points against fellow catastrophe club Cardiff City notwithstanding, the Geordies have been the most demotivated, non-entity of a side ever since the unwanted departure of Yohan Cabaye – ambling through the subsequent 14 games with a record of ten losses, 29 goals conceded, and just ten scored. The chastening experience of Manchester City, who lost 8-1 at Middlesbrough under soon-to-be-ex-boss Sven-Göran Eriksson in 2008, shows what can happen when a team enters matchday 38 with nigh on zero morale.

Out of the blocks, Liverpool are the most explosive attacking force in English football. In a do or die scenario, let’s see what they can do when asked to keep up the sprint for 90 minutes. There is no telling what West Ham United might do at the Etihad, but the Reds must do everything possible to maximise their chances of glory. And, unless Villa beat City first, that means goals, goals, goals.

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