By Ivan Lim
On account of the fact that I do not support any English team (or any football team in the world apart from the one representing my country), this interminable English Premier League (EPL) season has been the most exciting one for me yet.
Before the start of the season, on July 22 last year, I said that Liverpool needed to win the Premier League title to legitimise any claim to any title they won or held outside of England. (They had just won the Champions League and are still European Champions until Real Madrid or some other European team wins this season’s tournament on Aug 24.)
When the season started, I quickly became enamoured with the Reds, and by the time the fifth round of matches was played on Sept 16, 2019, I had declared that Liverpool would be champions of England – much to the chagrin of real Liverpool fans who believed I was deliberately making the prediction to jinx their beloved team, and the exasperation of Manchester United fans who were certain I was doing it simply to spite them.
Neither was the case, of course. After watching all the teams play their first five matches, I was more than convinced that no team would come close to Liverpool. As it turned out, they ended the season with 99 points, 18 more than second-placed Manchester City.
As the season progressed, I saw too many Manchester United fans becoming preoccupied with the results of Manchester City just so they could put pressure on the runaway Reds, which I felt was a disgrace, so I asked that they backed Leicester City – guilt free – to keep Liverpool honest instead.
That proved a lot more difficult than predicting the league champions with just five games played, of course.
And then, a man named Bruno Fernandes arrived at Old Trafford at the end of January from Sporting Lisbon, and that changed everything.
They went on an astonishing 11-match unbeaten run in all competitions. Astonishing, if you considered that Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was fast becoming the favourite manager of every Liverpool fan I knew.
The United team who were dismissed as a mediocre, mid-table outfit even managed to condemn Manchester City to second place, much to the delight and gratitude of – yes, Liverpool fans. Well, they actually put Liverpool to within six points of becoming champions, but that United victory at Old Trafford against their neighbours virtually ended all realistic hope of City retaining their title.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus hiatus meant no matches would be played for the next 100 days. But by the time Project Restart got off in England, I was no longer quite so interested in watching Liverpool anymore, since their winning the title was a conclusion long foregone.
Sure, I did make a wish – that the small business of Liverpool mathematically winning the title would quickly be settled so we could move on to other matters, which they did when Chelsea defeated Manchester City. By that time, my focus had shifted to the last two places of the Champions League. In fact, I wanted Manchester United to take third place.
So I said, at the restart, that I wanted Manchester United to win all their remaining nine games. That didn’t happen, but they remained undefeated in post-restart – something no other team managed, not even Liverpool or Manchester City.
They even secured that unique record of being the only team in the Premier League’s history to win four matches in a row by a margin of three goals. They would go on to win six matches and draw three to end the season in third place.
Along the way, I saw how hard it was to be Manchester United. Before the restart, they were three points adrift of Chelsea and eight behind Leicester. With the fixture crunch, it was by no means easy to close that gap.
Players are under such great pressure to perform well, and are so swiftly criticised when they don’t. Take the case of David de Gea. After letting in that goal against Spurs in the first match after restart, he remained under constant scrutiny. You’d hardly see that happening to goalkeepers of other teams. When Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel tried to dribble past Manchester United’s Instagram star Jesse Lingard, only to lose the ball for the latter to score a TikTok worthy last goal of the season for United, nobody asked for Schmeichel to be replaced. The expectations are very different.
And all that talk about Manchester United winning penalties? Well, what were they supposed to do? Donate their penalties to relegation-threatened teams the way some of us might choose to donate our Care and Support payouts to the more needy around us?
I enjoyed United’s nine-match unbeaten run. I felt sorry when they conceded the last-minute goal against Southampton, and when they were held by West Ham. But I was quite happy that they won their last game to finish the season ahead of both Chelsea and Leicester.
I’m sometimes still not sure if Solskjaer knows what he is doing tactically, but he’s probably doing something right to get United up to third.
No doubt there remains a monumental gulf in class between Liverpool and Manchester United, perhaps even City and United. But United, with Champions League qualification, now have more in their coffers to reinforce their ranks. And if Solskjaer can get the players he needs in the tiny summer transfer window, then I suspect we might have an even more exciting season coming up than the one that just ended.
Because the only thing that I felt was missing from this spectacular season was a real fight between Manchester United and Liverpool.
The way things are going, however, that’s just what we might be able to witness next season.
This article, “Manchester United 2019/2020 season report card: A – Maybe next year will be their year”, originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.