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Liverpool, Man City most likely to emerge with title

by Christopher Davies

Liverpool will win the title if it equals Arsenal’s single-season Premier League record of 13 consecutive wins set in 2002-03.

The Reds have won their last eight league games and victories in the remaining five will guarantee them their first English crown in 24 years.

These victories must include the visits of Manchester City on Sunday and Chelsea later this month. A tall order, very tall, and probably too tall.

The smart money would still be on City, which is four points behind Liverpool with two games in hand, to be Champions, though a home win on Sunday would swing the title pendulum significantly toward Anfield with the finishing line in sight.

While Liverpool vs. City is not a Premier League-deciding match, it is the next best thing — a final straight showdown between the two most potent teams in the top flight, both averaging around a remarkable three goals per game.

Liverpool’s strike-force of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have 49 goals between them already this season with penalty expert Steven Gerrard weighing in with 13.

For City, Sergio Aguero (despite missing much of the season through injury), Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko have scored 35 goals between them while YaYa Toure, Samir Nasri, David Silva and Jesus Navas have notched up 33 collectively from midfield positions.

Liverpool (90) and City (84) are both on course to break Chelsea’s Premier League record of 103 goals set two years ago. A goal-less draw is not expected at Anfield.

In another season Toure, whose 18 goals as a primarily defensive midfielder is an astonishing achievement, and the spellbinding Silva would be viable candidates to be the Footballer of the Year, but Suarez — 29 goals in 28 league games, plus 11 assists — seems nailed on for the Football Writers’ Association’s award.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has skillfully taken a side that finished seventh last season to within touching distance of the title. His finest achievement has been convincing Suarez, who missed the opening five games completing his punishment for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, to stay with the club.

Rodgers did this quietly and efficiently and a fully focused Suarez, with only four yellow cards this season, has been the main reason for Liverpool’s consistently good form.

While a draw would not be a bad result for City, manager Manuel Pellegrini insisted it would be going out to win.

“If you play to draw, you will lose, so we are going to play to win,” he said. “Of course after the game if we couldn’t win the game and we draw, it’s a good result, but we are not going to play against Liverpool thinking we must draw. We don’t know how to play in that way.”

For Liverpool, the best form of defense is attack. Cue goalfest at Anfield.

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AS DAVID MOYES walked toward the tunnel after Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena he knew what was coming. Another media inquest after another United loss, with the inevitable question about his future.

It has become a familiar scenario for Moyes, who basically says the same thing after each loss, just changing the name of the opposition.

United’s run of 18 consecutive seasons in the Champions League is about to come to a halt as it is seventh in the Premier League, seven points off fourth place with five games to play.

It will be at least 17 months before it returns. The most successful club in English football history will have to battle against the billionaire-owned Chelsea and Manchester City, the re-emergence of Liverpool and Everton, plus the traditional power of Arsenal to regain a position at Europe’s top table.

More immediately, a place in next season’s Europa League is United’s unfamiliar and unwanted target.

With Robin van Persie injured and Wayne Rooney running on empty, Moyes will have to rely more on Danny Welbeck, a ceaseless workhorse but a less-than-prolific striker to achieve qualification for Europe’s consolation tournament.

Rooney played in Munich with a pain-killing injection is a troublesome toe, and to select someone who was, in Moyes’ admission “struggling to strike the ball at times” is baffling to say the least. As was keeping Rooney on for the full 90 minutes if that was the case.

Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, did what he has done so often it is virtually guaranteed — leading Chelsea to the semi-finals. The Portuguese has reached the last four in seven of his nine attempts, including the last four consecutively.

Mourinho dismissed Arsene Wenger as “a specialist in failure” but the Chelsea manager is a specialist in winning, even if he is such a great coach he does not need to fight the world, including some of his own players.

However distasteful some of Mourinho’s statements and methods may be, the overall package works and has brought success everywhere he’s been. His team selections, tactics and substitutions invariably come up trumps, especially in the big games.

Djemba Ba had not started a Chelsea game this year, but he came on as a sub against Paris St.-Germain last Tuesday and scored the goal that put it in the semifinals.

When Ba scored, Mourinho raced down the touchline, not in celebration but to stress upon his jubilant players the need to focus and tighten up tactically for the remaining few minutes. Mourinho was aware teams are often at their most vulnerable when they have just scored when concentration levels can be blurred by joy.

Mission accomplished.

Twenty two seconds after Patrice Evra scored in Munich, Bayern equalized, a goal Moyes called “a crime.” From the restart, no United player touched the ball as Mario Manduzic headed home.

Mourinho has the midas touch that Moyes would love. His image, arrogance and an ability to rub people the wrong way ruled Mourinho out of the United job though privately, at least, the United power brokers must be wondering if they blundered by appointing the Chosen One instead of the Special One.

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THE FOOTBALL Association is to prevent any employee working for clubs in the top eight leagues in English football from betting on the sport. Three Premier League players have been banned, while Tranmere manager Ronnie Moore lost his job for breaching current regulations.

They did not bet on their teams to lose — they would probably have been kicked out of the game had they done that — but any sort of wager on the game they are involved in could leave the integrity of a player or manager open to question.

It is a sensible decision by the governing body, but one which is dripping with hypocrisy. The F.A. has an official betting partner in William Hill, while the Football League is sponsored by Sky Bet.

Aston Villa, Fulham and Stoke wear the names of betting companies on their shirts, while of the 20 Premier League clubs only Chelsea does not have an official betting partner.

Football is happy to take millions of pounds from betting companies, yet from next month employees will be prohibited from wagering on the sport.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.