And so it comes to this. After a league season dominated by Arsenal’s rampant start, by Chelsea’s heavy motors and then suddenly -- to everyone’s apparent glee -- by a resurrected Liverpool on a direct spurt from 1989, we are left with only one properly upright contender for the title, and even they wear the look of the team who mistrusts the future.
It is not Arsenal, who fell by the wayside months ago.
It is not Chelsea, who stumbled at Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and then Norwich. They are as good as gone.
It is not even Liverpool, who enacted something of a theatre piece on Monday in south east London that will long live in the memory as fragments of incredible sporting drama always do. A penny for the thoughts of all these supposed neutrals who, we were told constantly, wanted Liverpool to win the league. Did these neutrals even exist in the first place?
With Steven Gerrard’s now-infamous on-pitch exhortation of “this does not slip” still ringing in everyone’s ears, that is precisely what they appear to have done. It is precisely what Gerrard did, letting in Chelsea’s Demba Ba for one of the season’s game-changers at Anfield a week ago.
- Kelly: Little hope left
- Mooney: Aguero concern
Since then we have all been treated to a fascinating, winding, serpentine tale featuring frayed nerves, battered hamstrings and palpitating hearts. Goblins and monsters have stalked the great and good and put some of them off their game completely. What a bone-shaking end to a spectacular season of goals and mishaps. Liverpool, one shy of 100 in the league. City, with a massive 150 in all competitions. All season long they have been hammering at it in the respective red and blue corners.
Liverpool had beaten City 3-2 in an exhausting, drama-laden contest at Anfield that seemed to all but crown them champions. Then Chelsea visited and the earth twitched again. A jolt, a bang and everything was on the floor. Who would get up quickest to claim the spoils? Suddenly the Merseysiders, whose supporters had been singing lustily about winning the league for a month or more, were being pulled back into the quagmire on shaky, uncertain legs.
But City’s fabled games in hand turned into a burning stone, dropped immediately in the home game with Sunderland that followed defeat at Anfield. City were out for the count, breathing heavily, heaving and gulping on the canvas with their ears full of the wails and shrieks of the interminably excited. A last-gasp equaliser, hardly deserved in a lumpen, nervous showing, saved the terror of defeat, but a win was needed, surely.
Then Samir Nasri’s wild swipe, three minutes into stoppage time, found itself buried in the crowd and not in the net. That the same Sunderland relegation fodder then went and won at Chelsea tilted us all a little closer to the ground. Shock after shock after shock. Did this throw it back to Brendan Rodgers’ men? Nobody seemed to quite know any more, but the Liverpool supporters kept on singing.
That results sent us all reeling again can have come as no surprise by now. Liverpool losing at home to Chelsea and City winning at a canter at Palace changed things again. Suddenly there was a ray of light for Manuel Pellegrini’s side. A dramatic, gutsy 3-2 win at Everton on Saturday, coupled with Liverpool’s astonishing 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace two days later has opened up into glorious, bright sunlight. From holding firmly to a three-goal lead that would surely have put serious gremlins into the minds of the City playing staff, Liverpool’s bent and buckled finish on Monday can only have had the opposite effect.
Luis Suarez’s heaving shoulders. Gerrard’s sudden shunning of the cameras. The ashen-faced away support -- these are images that could yet define their season.
And yet. The doubts will remain among those dog-eared City supporters, dragged through every thorn bush and mud-layered pond in the last 35 years and incapable of believing anything positive until the shining pot is handed over. The players read from a different song sheet these days, leaving the fans to do the fretting. Yaya Toure, however, gave us all a glimpse into the mindset of the professional when he stated this week: “Never again like two years ago. My heart can’t take it.”
Not one City supporter will feel comfortable counting the proverbial chickens until they have all hatched. We may be able to hear a great deal of clucking. There may be eggs dropping left, right and centre, but there is no sign of as much as a beak from where this correspondent is sitting.