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Blog - Kicking and Screaming

The Big Red Machine grinds toward glory


If there were any justice in the world, then Liverpool would win the league this year and newly minted Harvard Business School lecturer Sir Alex Ferguson would be forced to teach a course entitled Building A Championship Team The Scouser Way. Of course, if there were any justice in the world, then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho would be operating a Tilt-A-Whirl in Lisbon instead of plotting to ruin The Miracle on Merseyside. Here's how my scales of justice work. Once March made it clear that for the ninth straight year Arsenal had face-planted on the Stairway to Prem Heaven and April ushered in the wafting stench of possible Europa League purgatory, three letters came immediately to mind: ABM -- Anybody But Mourinho. That leaves Man City and Liverpool to root for. For all of Man City's likable players -- Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure -- and despite the dignified way that manager Manuel Pellegrini has handled his first season in the Prem cauldron, Man City is still a collection of high-end talent that only an oligarch could (and did) afford. And as an Arsenal fan addicted to the thin gruel of his club's transfer budget -- except for when we spend tens of millions on useless Russians (Andrei Arshavin) or injury-prone Germans (Mesut Ozil) -- I find it difficult to relate to owners with Monopoly money tendencies. Ah, but Liverpool. There's a team that has made suffering into an art form during a near quarter-century of swallowing the bitter horse pills of Sir Alex Ferguson's dispensed medicine. I feel sympathetic pains for my Northern Red brethren as they strive to plant their flag at the top of the Prem. After all, misery loves (Vincent) Kompany. It seems too good to be true that Liverpool and Arsenal would end their extended wandering in the trophy-less desert, and manage the trick without being rescued by some Middle Eastern sheikh. Yet both clubs are owned by moderate Yanks, fine and upstanding Americans who have put their faith in strong management and prudent investment strategies. Can you imagine what next year's Community Shield would be like? There'd probably be a cash bar at the players' reception. But that's where the comparisons end. While Liverpool was notching its 10th straight league win with a pulsating 3-2 victory over Man City, putting them on the brink of one of the most remarkable transformations in league history (from seventh place to champions in one improbable season), Arsenal has been traveling in the opposite direction. Gone is the feel-good spirit of the early two months at the apex of the Prem table. Going is the usual fourth-place trophy, as Everton has also been drinking from the soccer font of the River Mersey to surge two points ahead of my beloved Gunners. All that is left to salvage is a modicum of respect -- and perhaps our manager's job -- in an FA Cup final against Hull City. Indeed, to witness the delirious scenes of celebration at both Wembley and Anfield this past weekend is to understand how much the games mean to their silverware-deprived supporters. "I gave up smoking a year ago and never looked back," said Mickey, a lifelong Liverpudlian who tends bar at my local watering hole, New York's Football Factory. "But this morning, I could feel my nerves jangling and I thought, 'God, I'd do anything for a cigarette. Or ten.'" How emotionally charged was this battle for Premier League supremacy? Let's just say that the game featured Jesus (Navas), Moses (Victor) and, at least as far as Anfield was concerned, God (Steven Gerrard). - Brewin: Win confirms Reds' credentials - Kelly: A monumental win - FC TV: Gerrard's impact as leader - Nicol: Liverpool grades I don't think I fully grasped the enormity of the occasion until a well-lubricated Liverpool supporter, in his joy over the winning goal, nearly decapitated me. The arm around my neck belonged to Carl Moore, a young fan from Mississippi (Mississippi!) who was so overcome by the combination of adrenaline and liquid courage that he simply had to grab the nearest person to him and bound up and down like a man dancing at a Purple Wedding in Westeros. Instead, he had watched Man City come roaring back from a 2-0 first-half deficit to pull even and then seize the initiative before Kompany's sliced clearance in the box fell to Philippe Coutinho. After the Brazilian skillfully swept the ball past Joe Hart's despairing dive and Carl had hurled me into his beer-drenched embrace, he relaxed his sleeper hold and explained, "It's been so long since we won anything that I went a little crazy." As an Arsenal fan, I understood. Less than 24 hours earlier, I had stood in the same place and received a similar manhandling from my friend Placide, who was anything but when Per Mertesacker equalized in the 81st minute of Arsenal's harrowing FA Cup semifinal against Wigan. Up until that point, I had been surrounded by the angriest group of Gooners I had seen since, well, seven days ago. Mertesacker had tears in his eyes as he wheeled around in triumph, while I had Guinness in mine from the resulting beer shower that washed over Arsenal fans in a wave of relief. It was one thing to watch last week's 3-0 evisceration by a slick-passing, expertly organized Everton team, but to trail 1-0 to a Championship side with nine minutes remaining in what amounted to the Gunners' last chance to end the infernal trophy drought short of a decade was simply too much for even the most forgiving Arsenal fan to bear. "Can someone please explain to me how we can draw with Bayern Munich and yet are incapable of breaching a defense that features Stephen Crainey and James Perch?" fellow Arsenal fan Ed Brolin asked rhetorically, turning away from the screen in disgust. By all reasonable measures of talent and resources, Arsenal should have toyed with Wigan like a cat with an injured mouse, but the Latics were not cowed by the Gunners' pending Europa League credentials and played with the grit and determination you would expect from the defending cup holders. And until Mertesacker glanced a far-post header past Scott Carson, Wigan made Arsenal look like the increasingly tentative, toothless and injury-gutted side they have devolved into in recent weeks. On Saturday, all of that misery was visible in the modern-day, full-life version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" as the cameras constantly panned to the anguish etched on Arsene Wenger's face. In yet another episode of this season's "What The Hell Is He Thinking?" saga, the Arsenal manager decided to start the 21-year-old-still-searching-for-his-first-goal Frenchman Yaya Sanogo over the established 27-year-old Frenchman Olivier Giroud, who has scored 19 goals this campaign. The fact that a club of Arsenal's ambitions is reduced to choosing between two strikers who should at best be backups to a top-tier marksman is the most damning indictment of Wenger's recruiting philosophy -- a policy that can basically be described as Mesut Ozil and the French Cub Scout troop. Maybe in a few years, when Sanogo matures into a striker of Emmanuel Adebayor-esque proportions, Wenger will be hailed as a genius, but by then Arsenal could be vying with Spurs for last-in-North London honors while Le Prof is tending his garden and putting the turnips where the carrots clearly belonged. This is not meant to blame Arsenal's egregious display solely on Sanogo, who to his credit hustled and muscled his way into some promising positions, only to be let down by a touch just a fraction heavier than Mike Tyson's. With the exception of an industrious Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and an inspired Lukas Fabianski, the entire team played as if they'd be lucky to get a point off the Red Bulls on their upcoming summer tour. - Brewin: Gunners win, flaws remain - McNicholas: Redemption for Fabianski - FC TV: Arsenal's fight for fourth Mertesacker's equalizer temporarily released the pressure valve, but the familiar feeling of penalty-kick dread was rising among Gooners as extra time flowed away. My (mostly) rational brain immediately recognized Arsenal's enormous advantage in the shootout derby -- Arsenal had no Englishmen taking their spot kicks while Wigan had three. After two heroic saves from the Fabulous Fabianski, order had been mercifully restored. Judging from the outpouring of emotion on the field afterward, the Arsenal players were entirely aware of how fortunate they had been to earn a repeat trip to Wembley on May 17. They had played poorly in normal time but held their nerve in the shootout and now have one tremulous hand on a trophy. By contrast, this weekend Liverpool played with the ice-cold conviction of a team that believes it can wrest control of the Premier League from its fiercest rivals. They were further emboldened by the relentless roar of their fans in the Kop, which must have made Man City feel like they were always playing a man down. Actually, it was Liverpool who were lucky not to be short-handed when Luis Suarez, so well-behaved for much of his redemptive season, channeled his evil twin and did one of his patented cartoonish dives in the 53rd minute, a craven attempt to get City defender Martin Demichelis sent off. Aside from that one indiscretion and his slide-rule, defense-shredding pass for Raheem Sterling to put Liverpool ahead after five minutes, it was a relatively quiet game for the league's presumptive Player of the Year. So much for the theory that the Reds are overly reliant on the Uruguayan who has scored 29 goals this season. The fact is, manager Brendan Rodgers has built a side with so much attacking prowess that opponents are unable to fixate on stopping any one player. On Sunday, when Man City essentially contained Suarez, Sterling punished them with his speed and guile. Or Coutinho did with his sublime technique on the winning goal. Or Stevie G did, with his inch-perfect cross to Martin Skrtel for the second goal. And this is to say nothing of Daniel Sturridge, who has scored 20 Prem goals this season but missed a couple of sitters before limping off with a tight hamstring after 66 minutes. Liverpool just has to win its last four games to be champions -- including the potential decider against Chelsea at Anfield in two weeks. But by not crumbling in the face of Man City's second-half assault, the Reds proved they are worthy of their first Prem title in 24 years. And in 15 years, I'm sure I'll know what that feels like.