Erik ten Hag comments hint at new Premier League title reality for Liverpool
Liverpool are most likely now locked in a three-way fight for the Premier League title after Aston Villa were beaten by Manchester United on Sunday.
And then there were three. Probably.
Manchester United’s narrow victory at Aston Villa on Sunday landed another damaging blow to the Midlanders’ hopes of maintaining their surprise Premier League title challenge under Unai Emery.
With just two wins from their last seven games, Villa have fallen seven points behind Liverpool having been level with Jurgen Klopp’s leaders at Christmas.
Two days earlier, Tottenham Hotspur’s late winner at home to Brighton on Saturday prevented their gap to the top opening up to double figures. And with six wins in their last nine Premier League games after a spell of one point from five outings, the Londoners will feel momentum is with them.
History, though, suggests Villa’s latest reverse means the championship battle is now between Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, the trio covered by just two points with City having the advantage of a game in hand at home to Brentford on Tuesday week.
Only once in the Premier League era has a team come from outside the top three to win the title with 14 games remaining. And even then the eight-point gap of Arsenal from the summit in 1998 was always in the knowledge the Gunners had a game in hand. Indeed, they were second by the time they reached the 25-game mark.
Of course, the destiny of the title will be significantly influenced next month when Liverpool entertain City and Arsenal visit the Etihad. But the squabble for Champions League qualification is likely to have an even greater impact on who finishes top.
United have to travel to City before hosting Liverpool in April and, on the penultimate weekend of the season, Arsenal. In successive weeks in April, Tottenham are at home to City and Arsenal before visiting Anfield, while Villa are at City and Arsenal and then finish their home campaign with a visit of Liverpool.
Certainly, United were in bullish mood after their win at Villa Park, with manager Erik ten Hag declaring: “I think we can beat any opponent, away or at home, but sometimes away we need to believe (in ourselves) more. We could have won at Arsenal, we deserved to win. We could have won at Liverpool.”
United lost 3-1 at Arsenal. And it’s worth remembering that during the goalless draw at Anfield in December, Liverpool had 68% possession, forced 12 corners, fired 34 shots at goal and managed eight on target. Alisson Becker had one shot to save and United managed no corners. While his team deserved credit for being resistant at a ground where they’d lost 7-0 earlier in the year, to suggest it was one they could have won is myopically ambitious from Ten Hag.
Trying to ascertain trends from the fixture schedules of the three main title contenders is difficult, but would indicate Arsenal face a more difficult task. City’s game in hand means they have eight home games left and seven away, with both Liverpool and Arsenal’s remaining 14 games having an even split.
Liverpool have arguably the slightly easier ask, albeit with the significant caveat they have to still play their two most emotionally-charged away games of the season at Goodison and Old Trafford. Liverpool have four of the current top half to come to Anfield, but away from home only have to take on three.
City are yet to welcome five of top 10 to the Etihad but, similar to Liverpool, must only face three more on the road. But while Arsenal only have three of the top half to come to the Emirates, they have still to visit five on their travels. It was six before their 6-0 thumping of West Ham United on Sunday, a statement they are ready to dig in for the long haul.
So tight is the top three that, in terms of goals scored, goals conceded and goal difference, there is barely anything to split them. Past experience indicates they will be down to two come the closing weeks. Liverpool, however, will continue to take it just one game at a time. A first win at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium – where both City and Arsenal have already triumphed this season – is the next landmark for Klopp to achieve.