Wembley, Title Pressure and my hero – A Week in the City

With one trophy in the bag already, Joe Butterfield takes a look back at the cup win, the pressure Liverpool face in the title race and a love letter to a certain Argentinian right-back.

Kepa

City win the Kepa Cup Final

On Sunday, after a long journey down to Wembley, after checking into a hotel that smelled a little bit like something had died underneath the floorboards, after getting two tubes to Wembley Way, after watching United and Liverpool stumble to a 0-0 in the concourse, after witnessing City fans actively groaning and getting angry with Paul Pogba for misplacing passes around Liverpool’s penalty area, after 180 minutes of football and 10 penalties, I watched Manchester City lift the Carabao Cup.

The quality of the game was, at best, dour. If you’re not a fan of watching lots of possession and a midfield tactical battle involving pressing channels and half-spaces being blocked off with little to no end product for either team then this was not a game for you. It was a thoroughly uninteresting game to be at up until the 119th minute (oh, we’ll get to that) and it was reflected in the atmosphere.

In the build-up to kick off, City fans clearly had the best support at the ground. The flags given out to everybody at the game, as opposed to Chelsea’s scarves, created a much more obvious sense of a City end, whilst Chelsea fans just sat/stood still with no movement. City fans made plenty of noise in the build up and chanted regularly, whereas Chelsea’s end was much less vocal until the second half when the roles reversed, with plenty of gaps of basically nothing in-between.

Then, in the 119th minute, Chelsea’s keeper, confusingly called Kepa, went down with cramp after saving a low shot from Aguero. Having already gone down with cramp once before, many (myself included) assumed he was just time-wasting, then when Caballero stepped out from the subs bench it became clear that this may have been part of an elaborate plan to make sure that Caballero had time to get on the pitch to do what he does best – save penalties.

From that moment, Kepa either immediately forgot the carefully laid out plan that Sarri explained before the game or he legitimately thought his manager was only subbing him because he thought he was injured or he showed a lack of respect which is almost unprecedented in just defying his manager’s wishes and insisting he take part in the penalty shoot-out. Whichever one it is, it’s not really great for him to be so bluntly and publicly defying his manager.

From that point on you almost felt City had taken a psychological boost. No longer were they facing Willy Caballero, penalty specialist who has faced hundreds of their penalties over the years, against a confident Chelsea team in front of their own fans. Now they were facing Kepa, a keeper who’s just had a big argument with his manager and probably embarrassed half his team-mates in the process.

As Sterling lashed home a penalty into the face of the man who racially abused him on the touchline at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, and we’ll all back him up when he says it was top bins no matter how much crossbar it made contact with on the way, it was a sense of relief that washed over me. Not just because penalty shoot-outs are literally the most emotionally draining way to determine the winner of a game, but mostly because we didn’t really deserve to win. Sure, Chelsea didn’t have a shot on target, but they still created better chances across the 120 minutes than City did.

Still, it’s one trophy down, one more than Sarri has won in his entire career. It’s one more than Klopp has won in his entire time at Liverpool but some fans will tell you they were glad to be out of it, even though the Carabao campaign has now ended and we’re still sitting just one point behind them. Just the three trophies left…

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Raheem Sterling has triggered Chris Bascombe

When asked about the title race, Raheem Sterling, a player well-versed in what it feels like to be involved in a title race from the perspective of a Liverpool player, confirmed what many pundits have been thinking about the support at Anfield for some time.

He’s suggesting that the Anfield crowd (and to an extent the Liverpool support at large) played a part in the players struggling to follow through on the title race despite being in the driving seat going into the final few games. The expectations of the Liverpool fans and the desperation to see them finally lift a Premier League title overwhelmed the players and caused them to make mistakes or put in nervy performances. The Kop basically just stuck out its foot and tripped up Gerrard as he collapsed under the weight of history.

As a player in the dressing room at the time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Sterling to suggest this. Obviously it helps that it adds a little bit of pressure to Liverpool when he comes out and says so, but if he’s asked the question then he’s entitled to answer it.

That didn’t go down to well with a certain reporter for The Telegraph, who saw this and did not enjoy seeing Liverpool fans having any amount of blame being put on their shoulders (presumably because he is one) for the 2013/14 collapse.

Now, when Liverpool have come close to a title a couple of times before and on both of those occasions the fans have become their delirious, rabid worst, it’s not unreasonable for one of their ex-players to suggest this might have an impact. It almost happened to City, for one brief moment in 2012 we allowed ourselves to think that the title was already ours, then we found ourselves 2-1 down to QPR after 90 minutes. City almost let the chance to win their first Premier League title in 34 years slip because the weight of fan expectation became too much, and City apparently have no fans so that shows just how easy it is for it to make an impact.

How, then, can Liverpool fans seriously be deluded enough to believe that there’s no way there can be any correlation between both the fans and the media baying for a Liverpool title and the bottle jobs that previous title challenges have become? If somebody tells me to draw a perfectly straight line on a piece of paper I’d probably be able to give it a good go, but if twenty people watch me do it and yell “GO ON, JOE, THIS LINE’S OUR LINE” then it’s going to be about as straight as Louis Spence.

Liverpool fans will tell you that there are no expectations. “We’ve never won the Premier League, how can we possibly have any expectations?” Just tell that to the guys on Liverpool forums during 2013/14 who mocked up a picture of Shankly and Paisley looking down on Rodgers and smiling. Just tell that to anybody who’s part of Liverpool-related social media now, spending their time hyping up the squad and listing reasons as to why they’re better than anybody else in the league, implying that trophy-less Klopp is leagues ahead of the greatest football manager of the last decade, Pep Guardiola, because he ran onto the pitch and celebrated a last minute winner against Everton.

I’m not saying these people represent the entire fanbase, nor that Liverpool fans are wrong to be hopeful, even optimistic, of a first title win this season. They are in the driving seat, their fate is entirely in their hands. However these rabid, title-hungry fans absolutely exist and if they’re only the minority then they’re certainly a very loud one. And if you think that has no impact on a player going into the final handful of games in a season when the pressure is already notched up to its maximum, even when a player who was a member of that dressing room is telling you this was the case, then you’re just wrong.

The pressure from the media alone for the club to win is intense. Journalists at every major news outlet up and down the country are already getting their dissertations prepped for the end of the season, the “story of how Liverpool won their historic title” pieces are being drafted, ready for May. The books are being written already for the summer release. This is nothing, however, compared to their own fanbase. Good on Raheem for pointing it out.

pablo

He is the f**king man

It was the 60th minute during City’s game vs West Ham this week when Pablo Zabaleta was called back to the bench from warming up on the touchline. I immediately started to applaud him, as did many fans around me, as if we were watching Aguero or Kevin De Bruyne be called back to the bench by Pep in the midst of a crucial game which needed to be turned around.

Having already received a standing ovation from the fans just after half-time when he came out to warm up, I’d anticipated he’d get a good reaction from the crowd (obviously, he’s Pablo Zabaleta). What he got was a welcome which far exceeded anything I’d ever seen or expected.

As he approached the touchline, his famous song started to ring out. Not just ring out, but be bellowed out by the entire stadium at a higher level than even the cheers for the goal we’d scored minutes earlier. I’ll admit to getting a little bit chokey at this point, Zabaleta has been my favourite player for a long time, and probably always will be, and his farewell was one of the few things that has made me shed a tear in my adult life. Seeing the appreciation for his return was just great.

When the board went up for the substitution, the entire stadium rose to their feet. This was no ordinary player we were welcoming back. There was no nice little cheer of appreciation reserved for the likes of Nasri or Bony. This isn’t even the kind of welcome that players the calibre of Micah Richards or Nigel de Jong would get. This was a hero’s welcome. The club’s finest warrior, a man who spilled a lot of blood for the shirt he wore for nine years, was returning home.

As the stadium announcer shouted out his name as if he was coming on to replace Danilo, the crowd once again gave a cheer which felt louder than when we’d scored. He stepped out and applause followed him all the way to the throw-in he had to take on the other side of the pitch. It’s to his credit that he didn’t let this affect him, it was a half an hour of football which anybody in that situation could have been forgiven for treating almost like a testimonial, as it’s a bit of a unique situation, but that commitment is precisely why he’s held in such high regard by both City and West Ham fans alike.

He stayed on the pitch after the game to applaud the support, both home and away, and his tweet said all that needed to be said. I love you too, Pablo. You’ll always be my favourite blue.

 

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