From Liverpool's rare good opening day to Manchester City's response to twin cup defeats, the season has unfolded to leave Sunday's meeting a potential Premier League title race decider
Liverpool supporters have been frequently lampooned for their optimism in recent years, with rival fans finding the joke all the funnier because the club's title aspirations kept faltering at the very first hurdle. Liverpool came into this campaign having failed to win on the opening day of the season since 2008 and all their summer hopes looked set to be dealt another blow on the first day of this term when Stoke City were awarded a penalty at Anfield with two minutes to go. Liverpool had taken a 1-0 lead through Daniel Sturridge but Stoke responded strongly and could have equalised even before the 88th minute, when Daniel Agger inexplicably handled the ball to concede a penalty.
The pattern for another season of frustration seemed to be set. Except that this time things would be different. Mignolet, making his debut in the Liverpool goal, saved Jonathan Walters' spot-kick and then denied Kenwyne Jones on the rebound. The way the Belgium goalkeeper was mobbed by his team-mates at the final whistle showed that his save held a significance beyond the three points: it was as if a curse had been lifted, new belief was born. Given some of the wacky scorelines that were to follow, it seems odd that Liverpool won their first three matches of the season 1-0 but it was in those games that their resolve was solidified.
Liverpool have shown resolve not just on the pitch: in the boardroom, too, they have proven their determination to challenge for the top, most obviously when they simply refused to let Suárez move to Arsenal when the London club tried to activate the release clause. The top of the table would likely look very different now if Liverpool had not stood firm. The Uruguayan was, of course, banned for the first five matches of this season after his infamous attempt to cannibalise Branislav Ivanovic and there was some doubt as to how he would be reintegrated into the side upon his return, especially as Sturridge had excelled in his absence. Brendan Rodgers innovated to ensure Liverpool enjoyed the best of both Suárez and Sturridge. For the Uruguayan's return, away to Sunderland, Rodgers switched to a three-man defence so that he could deploy both of his strikers together and they combined wonderfully, Suárez scoring twice and Sturridge once as Liverpool won 3-1. The pair continued to flourish to the point that they are the top-scoring players in the Premier League this season.
The captain was injured for Liverpool's most spectacular away win of the season – the 5-0 triumph at White Hart Lane – but more significant, especially given the showdowns looming, was his absence from the defeats at Manchester City and Chelsea. In those matches the weakness in midfield in front of Liverpool's defence was exposed. When Gerrard returned in January, the manager assigned him a new deeper role designed to serve several purposes: give a solid anchor to midfield and acknowledge his dwindling mobility while retaining his excellent range of passing, and giving greater freedom to the ultra-dynamic Jordan Henderson. It took some tweaking before the move worked – Liverpool still looked vulnerable in their 5-3 win at Stoke and were outplayed by Aston Villa at Anfield until Rodgers moved to three central midfielders to salvage a draw. The formula was retained for the next league game and Liverpool showed they had become comfortable with it by destroying Everton 4-0.
Liverpool had underlined their credentials by thrashing title-rivals Arsenal 5-1 the previous week but to really convince doubters they needed to follow up that big win. They did not look like doing so when Kolo Touré scored a comical own goal after eight minutes. Sturridge equalised before half-time but Fulham, fighting for their lives, regained the lead early in the second half. Liverpool showed their determination not to lose momentum by coming back to prevail, Gerrard netting the winner from the penalty spot in the last minute. Liverpool have won every league game since.
Liverpool have been spared the toil of a European campaign this season but to an extent their season has still been defined by their ability to overcome adversity. Tactical adjustments and player improvements have helped limit the effect of the absence at various times of key players such as Gerrard, Suárez, Lucas Leiva, Sturridge, Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho; and, more spectacularly, swashbuckling attacking has sometimes compensated for downright absurd defending, most obviously when Liverpool managed to concede three goals at Cardiff but still finish with double their opponents' tally.
This was the first real demonstration of City's awesome power. It was a strong endorsement of the club's decision to oust Roberto Mancini in the summer, as Manuel Pellegrini's team swotted aside their neighbours with an insouciance seldom shown under the Italian. Even without the injured David Silva, there was a freedom and joy to their attacking that made City irresistible and their flair was backed up by ferocious competitiveness, as United were outfought as well as outplayed. City set the standard to which all other teams would have to rise to deny them the title. City often reached those heights again at home but one of the reasons that they have not wrapped up the title already is that they proved unable to match those standards away and, indeed, slumped to a 3-2 loss to Aston Villa in their next game.
Joe Hart has a more complete set of skills than Manchester City's No2 goalkeeper, Costel Pantilimon, and it was perhaps a feeling that he was untouchable as City's No1 that led to the Englishman's downfall. Mancini had cemented that feeling by going so far as to start Hart in last year's FA Cup final despite the goalkeeper's blunders and the fact that Pantilimon had played in every round up to the final. But when Hart gifted Chelsea's Fernando Torres a last-minute winning goal at Stamford Bridge in October, Pellegrini finally decided that enough was enough. The player had to be shown that his performances were unacceptable. So Hart was dropped hard. It was two months before the goalkeeper started in another Premier League game. Since his return, Hart seems refocused and is no longer looked upon as a liability. Instead he regularly produces saves to atone for the errors of players' in front of him.
Touré is the only person who one could reasonably expect to beat Luis Suárez to the player of the year awards. The Ivorian has long been distinguished by his blend of power, finesse and shrewdness but this season he has completed his repertoire by adding regular goals, hitting 18 so far this season, several of them masterpieces, such as the astonishing free-kicks against Newcastle United and Fulham. Touré's progression owes much to his successful midfield partnership with Fernandinho, whose arrival from Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer has given Touré a sounder platform on which to dazzle. It was noticeable that in the only league match this season in which Touré was cowed in midfield, the home defeat by Chelsea, Fernandinho was missing.
Agüero, like Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, would certainly have been competing with Suárez and Touré for the player of the year gongs if injury had not kept him on the sidelines for so long. The ingenious Argentinian was spearheading Manchester City superbly until he was laid low by a calf injury during the 6-3 victory over Arsenal in December, during which he plundered his 18th goal in 16 club games. City would likely be out in front at the top of the league if they had not been deprived for so long of Agüero's goals, speed and singular ability to unhinge defences in the blink of an eye. They might have been able to cope better if Álvaro Negredo had kept up the form he showed earlier in the season when he seemed to have consigned Edin Dzeko to the bench, but the Spaniard has not scored or been the same since injuring his shoulder in January's second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final against West Ham United, which raises the question of why Pellegrini risked playing him given that City were 6-0 up from the first leg. Still, Agüero looks like being fit in time for Sunday's showdown at Anfield.
At the end of a week in which they were eliminated from the FA Cup by Wigan Athletic and the Champions League by Barcelona – ending the talk about their winning an unprecedented four trophies – City travelled to Hull and their captain, Vincent Kompany, got himself sent off after 10 minutes. The scene was set for City's season to unravel, Arsenal-style. But that thought did not have time to take hold as, within four minutes, Silva had scored a wonderful goal to give City the lead. The much-maligned duo of Martín Demichelis and Javi García plugged the gap left in City's defence by Kompany as City showed a willingness to grind out results that had not always been apparent in unglamorous away matches earlier in the season. Dzeko sealed the win in the last minute, set up by Silva, restoring City's conviction that they could end the season with more than just the Capital One Cup.