If you ask Ian Rush, Sunday’s English Premier League match between first-place Liverpool and fast-closing Manchester City is about more than soccer supremacy.
Oh, sure, it will be a clash of styles and philosophies, one that will push the winner closer to the Premier League title with less than a month left in the season. But to hear Rush tell it, it will also be a battle of the banks, one matching the haves against the have-mores.
“Manchester City, you expect it because of the amount of money they pay for players,” says Rush, Liverpool’s all-time scoring leader and now an ambassador for the club. “On the day, Manchester City can be anything … because they’ve got the players and they’ve got the squad. They seem to have two squads.”
Manchester City, then, is the have-mores. Although it plays in the same gritty, working-class area that gave rise to both the Industrial Revolution and modern communism, the only thing blue collar about the team now is the tops of their azure jerseys.
Since billionaire Sheikh Mansour, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, took over 4 1/2 years ago, he has wiped out the club’s $500-million debt and turned City into one of the highest-salaried sports teams in the world. You could combine the payrolls of the Dodgers and New York Mets and still have enough left over to pay Derek Jeter’s salary before matching the $335 million Mansour paid his first-team players last season.
“So you expect Manchester City to be up there,” Rush repeats.
Liverpool’s success, at least to Rush, is more of a surprise.
“At the beginning of the season if you asked us if we’d be in this position, you’d give anything. The idea was to get in the top four,” says Rush, who played on Liverpool’s last champion team in 1990, two years before the Premier League was formed.
But while Rush would like to portray Liverpool as humble, hard-working everymen tilting at the gilded Manchester City windmill, the Reds’ payroll of $197 million last season was fifth-highest in the Premier League — and about $35 million more than owner John Henry is spending on salaries for his other team, the Boston Red Sox. That hardly qualifies them as the little sisters of the poor.
For City midfielder James Milner, the salary figures are irrelevant anyway.
“People will always have opinions in football,” he says. “People will rate players, people won’t rate players. You just have to get on with the business at hand and just concentrate on that.
“Everyone has the same squad size in the league. You’re allowed 25 players. It’s the same for every team.”
And that’s not the end of the similarities between first-place Liverpool and third-place City, who are separated by Chelsea in the EPL table. And it’s those similarities that figure to make Sunday’s showdown interesting.
The teams are 1-2 in the league in scoring and are pace to match or surpass the EPL standard for goals in a season. The teams are also 1-2 in goal differential; Manchester City has a chance to break that league record as well.
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez (29 goals) and Daniel Sturridge (20) are 1-2 in the league in scoring, just ahead of City’s Yaya Toure (18) and Sergio Aguero (15), who entered the weekend third and fourth. And each goalkeeper has 10 shutouts, with City’s Joe Hart allowing less than a goal a game.
As a result, Liverpool hasn’t lost a Premier League game this year; City has lost just once since Nov. 10.
“We’ve tightened up in the back, so that’s pleasing,” Milner says of the City defense, which has conceded just two goals in its last seven games. “It’s vitally important at the end of the season that you are tight in the back, that you’re not giving goals away.”
Liverpool, on the other hand, is averaging more than 31/2 goals a game over its last nine EPL matches, all wins.
“They entertain. It’s absolutely fantastic,” says Rush, who knows something about scoring, having collected 346 goals in his Liverpool career. “If you score one goal, we’re going to score two. And they keep on attacking.
“For all the amount of goals that have been going in by Manchester City and Liverpool, it’s incredible. And definitely Liverpool and Manchester City have been the entertainers this year.”
Which is why one of the two figures to be on top when the EPL season ends. After Sunday, Liverpool has just four games left, with only a home game against second-place Chelsea coming against a team with a winning record. City will have six games remaining with just an away game at Everton featuring an opponent in the top half of the league table.
“We have to make sure we don’t sluck it up with a poor game,” Milner says.
“Having won it before, we know how difficult it is to win the league,” continues Milner, who was with City when it won the EPL title in 2012, its first league championship in 44 years. “It’s such a hard thing to do. You can’t really put into words how hard it is to win one game in the Premier League. But then to win the league... “
Well, you can’t really put a price on that.