The Weekend Match: A Play In Two Parts

Act One

Manchester United 0-0 Liverpool

*drums fingers on the desk*

Oh. Hi.

I wasn’t really expecting anyone to drop by. I mean, who’d want to read about that, eh? Especially here, of all places. But that says more about me than it does about anybody else, I guess.

*deep breath*

It can be a grim old thing, can irony. A point the away team would have taken before the match. Back to the top of the Premier League, and never in much danger of that not being the case. And yet, and yet. Seldom before, in the recent history of football, can a team have gone to the top of the Premier League with so little inspiration as Liverpool did, this afternoon. They huffed and they puffed, but their hitherto talisman is off his game, their bench doesn’t look particularly strong, and they were… careless. Their delivery of the ball was both inaccurate and cumbersome.

When only two minutes of stoppage-time were signalled, one might have thought that the Liverpool team, playing against ten and a half players (with Marcus Rashford limping gamely – some might say foolhardily – on), might have sought to pour forward for a last minute goal that someone would definitely have ended up writing a song about, but no. They passed the balled across the pitch in trapezoid shapes across the pitch. The clock ran down. With ten seconds to play the ball was finally lumped aimlessly into the Manchester United penalty area, whereupon it was easily cleared. The final whistle blew, and that was that.

Despite the fact that yes, they got the point that they would have taken before a ball was kicked, and yes, they are back to the top of the Premier League, it was surely clear to all bar those with the most severe tunnelvision that this was the continuation of a mini-slump for Liverpool, coming as it does on top of dropped league points against Leicester City and West Ham United, as well as against an underwhelming goalless draw at home against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last week. Two consectuve goalless draws. Now is not a good time for goals to start drying up.

The good news for them is that this was their last away match against a top six club, with their two remaining home matches coming against Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. But momentum is a state of mind thing as much as anything else, and picking it up againat after it;s been dropped can be mighty difficult. Manchester City are in their rear view mirror, like the car from Duel, and they’ll have been watching this at Wembley with an eyebrow raised. It was the sort of performance that… relaxes opponents.

Manchester United, meanwhile, threw a tiny bit of a spanner in the works despite, for the first time since they were introduced, being forced to make all three of their substitutions before half-time, and then effectively also losing a limping Marcus Rashford for the last twenty minutes. Making three substitution throws a spanner in the works of carefully laid plans to a point at which everybody more or less has to improvise. That they got to full-time and a clean sheet under those circumstances was an achievement all of its own, even if they couldn’t create much at the other end, either. At least they had an excuse.

Fourth place is probably the end of season target, though Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat at Burnley yesterday will have fuelled the belief that third place isn’t completely impossible just yet. Getting back into the Champions League – this year’s will require an almighty performance to overhaul in the second leg against PSG – and maybe being back for the semi-finals and/or the final of the FA Cup would be a satisfactory return of having taken the very unusual step of sacking a manager during the season. That’s the sort of thing that Old Manchester United did. Still, Solskjaer has steadied the ship and put a team that was looking completely moribund to one with a lot to look forward to before the end of this season. He remains caretaker only, but is, of course, amongst the favourites to land the job on a permanent basis next summer.

 

Act 2

Manchester City 0-0 Chelsea (Manchester City win 4-3 on penalty kicks)

It took us roughly one hundred and nineteen and a half minutes, but we got there in the end.

The glass may well have been empty, but Kepa Arrizabalaga decided to say “hold my beer” anyway. The Chelsea goalkeeper had already gone down injured once when he needed a little assistance with a couple of minutes to play at the end of an otherwise thoroughly under-nourished League Cup final agianst Manchester City when he did so again, but what followed was a moment unprecedented at this level of the game. Kepa, perhaps taking his nominative determinism to its logical conclusion, refused to leave the pitch when Mauricio Sarri decided that Chelsea’s penalty shootout interests would be better served by having Willy Caballero in place for them.

For a couple of minutes, it was singularly unclear what, exactly, was going to happen. Sarri remonstrated at his own staff, the fourth official, and to the Gods themselves, at one point heading for a tunnel – it’s not difficult to imagine that he wanted a cigarette in a way that he never had before – before eventually rejoining the fray with as much dignity as he could muster under extremely embarrassing circumstances. Kepa, however, refused the requests for him to leave the pitch and make way for Caballero – who by this time was wearing the look of someone who thought he’d been invited to a dinner party only to realise upon arriving that this was a swingers party instead – and, after a little toing and froing, stayed on for the penalty kicks to follow.

Particularly notable was Kepa’s wink to the camera upon confirmation that he would be staying on for the penalties, which under normal circumstances would seal his fate of being consigned to the reserves until the end of the season and then shipped off to the Eredivisie on an indefinite loan, but Chelsea is no ordinary football club. It has been clear for some time that this is a club which allows its senior players to undermine the authority of whoever the manager is at will, so at the time of writing – ten o’clock on Monday morning – it seems as likely as not that the goal-Kepa will receive little more than a slap of the wrists over his refusal to leave the pitch whilst the manager is substantially more likely to pay for what happened with his job.

Such is the nature of modern football.

There’s been considerable conjecture over the last couple of years or so regarding this shift in the balance of power behind the scenes at football clubs. “Losing the dressing room” has become A Thing over this period of time, and yesterday’s incident will be held up as by those who consider everything to be a moral crusade as a further example of The State Of Things. Players looking as though they’re effectively downing tools because they don’t like the manager started out as something that most believed to be a conspiracy theory, but the body of evidence to suggest that no, this is actually something real, has been growing substantially, with the sudden transformation of Manchester United’s players into a group of individuals who are indeed very good at playing football – which should have been obvious on the basis of their transfer fees alone, really – and now this feeding into the notion that the modern manager is now becoming to management what referees are to refereeing in pro-wrestling.

And yes, it’s difficult not to have sympathy at a human level with Sarri for the abject humiliation of all of this. Both concerned tried to cover their tracks after the match, Sarri through a post-match interview and Kepa with a public statement which pretty much contradicted the evidence of the eyes of anybody who saw it. On one level, this was probably about as much as anybody could hope for. The damage had already been done, and all concerned could only try to feign some semblance of team spirit in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The extent to which other Chelsea players were inert during all of this, when it might have been expected – if they supported the manager – that they might otherwise have been pleading with the goalkeeper to get the hell off the pitch in order to spare all of their blushes. But they didn’t.

Kepa, then, was faced with a penalty shootout that he had to win, and how the concentration levels of the Chelsea players preparing for the stresses of such an event at the end of a cup final might have been affected by this is something at which we can only guess. But Sarri had to be physically restrained from getting at him, and there was little question that the goalkeeper was now faced with a shootout that he had to win in a way in which no goalkeeper has ever had to win a penalty shootout before. He failed. He did manage one save one from Leroy Sané, but another weak kick from Sergio Aguero squeezed underneath his body and Manchester City won after David Luiz’s kick hit the post and Raheem Sterling scored for City. In an ideal world, Sarri might have had Kepa take a kick himself. It’s a nice idea, but he might have refused to take it, and then what?

Still, at least there was one moment of drama over the course of these two matches, and it will allow everybody to gloss over the fact that this high-profile afternoon couldn’t otherwise have been much more pallid.