An uneven 50/50 split as noisy neighbours roar back

When Cork eventually beat Kerry in the Munster Senior Football Championship of 1987, though it was undoubtedly the end of an era, the result scarcely represented a monumental shock given the mileage which those vanquished had clocked up on their legs.

In contrast, when Clare conquered The Kingdom in 1992 and Leitrim broke out of the west two years later, both were cases of the sporting world being sent into a tailspin on its axis.

Nine weeks ago, if you had said Manchester United would go to Anfield as league leaders and slight favourites to end their neighbour’s 67 game unbeaten home run, you’d have thought of Captain Mainwaring admonishing poor Jones for “Entering the realms of fantasy again now”.

It would be very easy to attribute the club’s upturn in fortunes completely to the acquisition of Bruno Fernandez – their most important signing since Cristiano Ronaldo in my view – but any team’s productivity is only the sum of their collective components.

Though just like the butcher’s van turning out to be more than capable of doing the job, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s team had earned their position at the top of the pile on merit. Whether the manager has attained sufficient credit for the improvement proportionate to the amount of criticism levelled at the man is a debate for another day.

In this writer’s opinion, it’s an obvious case of letting the facts speak for themselves. Consider where the club were when the ex-Molde boss took over from Jose Mourinho was let go versus where they are now.

It would be very easy to attribute the club’s upturn in fortunes completely to the acquisition of Bruno Fernandez – their most important signing since Cristiano Ronaldo in my view – but any team’s productivity is only the sum of their collective components. Some of which are like the chains on a baler – you don’t see them, you don’t hear them, but if one of them snaps the whole machine grinds to a halt.

Step forward Luke Shaw. There are players who never arrive at their full potential due to what can only be described as an injury hex. Return to Gaelic football and see Shane O’Rourke as a pertinent example. Ditto former jockey Adrian Maguire, Munster Rugby’s Johnny Holland and a potentially endless list of others.

Ex-Southampton defender Shaw has had his time on the pitch severely curtailed by a chronic run of injuries since moving to Old Trafford and has found his time on the pitch further curtailed by the acquisition of Alex Telles. But, from the time United’s current upturn in fortune commenced the attacking full back’s influence been growing and pivotal.

Luke Shaw has been on a great run of late

In no way has anything the Red Devils done in that time been spectacular, but, part of being a seriously competitive team or even becoming one is knowing how to win and – more specifically – how to win ugly. 1-0 to the Arsenal may have been a form of The Gunners extracting the urine out of themselves but at the end of the day a 1-0 win is better than no win at all.

It needs to be pointed out, though, that, as much as Solksjaer’s side have improved without question, there’s no way Liverpool have become a below par outfit with any degree of rapidity either. Given that the champions had a cobbled together central defensive alignment which included club captain Jordan Henderson therein, it may have been the case that they would have been quite satisfied with a split of the spoils in a game for which the formbook can usually go in the fire.

Jordan Henderson

A draw was probably a fair result on the balance of things but if there’s any such thing as an uneven 50/50 split this was surely the patent for it. The visitors were the better team for the majority of the contest but, in what was possibly a microcosm of why they still have a way to go if they are to be considered genuine title contenders once again, both Paul Pogba and Fernandez spurned chances which, you sensed, had they presented themselves at the other end of the field would’ve been buried.

Or, maybe, for that matter, the best team in Manchester at the minute. Even though those in the red corner currently sit atop the pile, the noisy neighbours have roared back into the title race to leave themselves a Stones throw from the leaders. A John Stones throw, that is.

Rejuvenated: John Stones

There was a time, not all that long ago, when it was thought Harry Maguire and John Stones would be England’s go-to centre half partnership. Very similarly to a certain other player, having initially made an exciting breakthrough while with Everton before being snapped up by a Manchester club. The only difference being that where Wayne Rooney continued his ascent to superstardom, the other man’s prospects plumetted like a stone.

However, football is no different to any walk of life in that it’s a long road that has no turn. Thus, when the 25-year-old lined out as part of a City ‘second string’ in the third round of the FA Cup and ended up scoring it set a train of events in motion that reminded everyone how good he actually is.

Now, just as reference was made earlier to the reality that Liverpool couldn’t have become a bad team overnight, Stones couldn’t have deteriorated in quality that much as a player either. Not making the cut on a regular basis within Pep Guardiola’s amalgam of the footballing elite should be no black mark, mind you. John Stones would comfortably slot into most other rearguard units in the league. Not least across the other side of the same city. Though in fairness to United, the return of Victor Lindelof and his combining with Maguire appears to have them considerably more miserly.

As for City, aside from the extreme difficulty in maintaining the standards of excellence which have almost become routine under Pep, to be shorne of the massive influences of David Silva and – to a large extent – Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. Offsetting that loss, mind you, has been the sight of players such Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling and John Stones stepping up to the plate.

They’ve all had to cede top spot, for that matter, to Kevin De Bruyne. For me, the Belgian is not only City’s best player at the minute but also quite possibly the best midfielder in world football presently.

Kevin De Buyne – world’s best?

That said, the sense that the current Premier League betting odds are a bit reactionary is inescapable. There’e no doubt that, by a lot of yardsticks, Pep’s charges are the form horses in the field at present. Whether that entitles them to be as short as 1/2 is less clear-cut, though. Furthermore, even though I’ve been a Manchester United fan all my life and would love nothing more than to see them win the league – especially this year. Should they be as short as 7/1? Not in my book.

Then again, there’s a sense that defending champions Liverpool are a bit over-priced at 10/3. But here’s a question, have you ever seen a bookie on a bicycle?

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