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This may be the best title race the Premier League has seen - but is it a worrying sign?

In a repeat of the definitive weekend of the 2014 title race, Liverpool host Chelsea the same day as Man City travel to Crystal Palace.

A PIVOTAL WEEKEND in the title race, oddly symmetrical to the last time it was run between Manchester City and Liverpool.

In April 2014 Liverpool hosted Chelsea at Anfield on the same day as City travelled to Crystal Palace as the title went to the wire.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League - Etihad Stadium Mo Salah has a shot saved by Ederson in the January clash between Manchester City and Liverpool. Source: EMPICS Sport

Although the season was at a slightly later stage, Liverpool had again played a game more than City: they had three games to go, City four.

There are a few differences admittedly, the biggest being that five years ago the title was in Liverpool’s hands rather than City’s.

Added to that is the fact the Anfield clash was first on the schedule in 2014 – this time its City – and that Raheem Sterling played for Liverpool, James Milner for City and Mo Salah started at Anfield in a Chelsea shirt.

It was the defining weekend: Steven Gerrard sliped and panicked for Liverpool in defeat to a narky Chelsea; City won away to Palace thanks in part to a terrific Yaya Toure goal.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Liverpool v Chelsea - Anfield Steven Gerrard reacts to his costly slip against Chelsea in 2014. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The set-piece of five years ago is also being repeated this weekend at a much, much higher standard as both sides have more points at this stage of the season than they did when facing these fixtures in 2014, at which point they had played three games more.

So this has been the highest-quality title race the Premier League has ever seen, with one of the sides likely to break the 90-point barrier and still miss out on the title for the first time in the competition’s history.

But is the quality of the race indicative of some essential genius lying at the heart of the Premier League, or is it actually the latest sign of a latent sickness?

Since the improbable May of 2016, the Premier League’s six biggest clubs have decided that Leicester City would be the last barbarians to breach the gate.

Leicester City v Everton - Barclays Premier League - King Power Stadium Andrea Bocelli sings at Leicester City's title presentation of 2016. Source: Nick Potts

So they drew up the drawbridge and flexed their financial muscle, recruiting some of the best managers in the game in Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte, while Spurs’ canny sense delivered them Mauricio Pochettino.

Manchester United, meanwhile, appointed Jose Mourinho.

This, along with a lavish investment on transfers, has seen the emergence of a Top Six who have annexed the top of the division and left the rest of the league largely content to avoid relegation.

The gap between sixth and seventh is widening: in 2017 it was eight points; last year it was nine; now it’s already at 14.

The Premier League marketed itself as the Best League in the World until the exodus of its stars to Spain made that no longer credible, so it reinvented itself as The Most Competitive League in the World, to which you’d better tune in as anyone could beat anyone.

Now they need a new sales pitch.

As journalist Richard Jolly points out, the league’s bottom three have played 31 games against the league’s top six this season…and lost them all.

To broaden it out: Liverpool and City have dropped all of 17 points between them in games against sides outside of the Top Six. 

There was a fair basis for these ‘most competitive’ claims, given the relative equity on which the Premier League was founded.

Television rights – which forms the bulk of clubs’ income – were sold collectively, rather than was the case in Spain, for example, where each club sold their own, meaning the rich (Barca and Madrid) would always get richer as the poor would always be relatively poor.

The Premier League rights were evenly distributed, however, at least when judged by the unimpressive standards of benevolence set by elite European football leagues.

In England, 50% of the TV money is shared equally between the clubs with 25% awarded on the basis of league position and the remaining 25% divided on the grounds of how often a club has appeared on live television.

Last summer, however, the relative equity of this was fundamentally altered, when the League’s Top Six successfully argued for a greater share of overseas TV revenue.

From next season, any increase in the international rights will be shared according to league position: the agreement means that the highest-placed team will make 1.8 times what the bottom-placed team will make.

This could amount to a monstrous amount of money, given the precedent set in the US by NBC who, having paid $250 million for a three-year deal from 2012, committed a billion dollars to a six-year deal up to 2022.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League - Etihad Stadium Pep Guardiola reacts angrily during the Premier League meeting with Liverpool in January. Source: Martin Rickett

The gap between the Top Six and the Other 14 is only going to get larger, so for how much longer are the fans of the latter going to accept the limit of their ambitions is a place in the Europa League qualifiers which, as Burnley have learned this season, can be hugely detrimental to league form the following season?

And for how much longer will fans fork out expensive satellite subscriptions to watch games when the financial gap renders so many games utterly predictable?

If the only games worth watching are those between the Top Six, it will only intensify the thirst for the a-la-carte viewing options that are the future of modern media and a serious problem for traditional satellite companies.

And with the bottom 14 clubs without money from competing in Europe, they would be most affected were the domestic TV rights market to collapse.

So although only one of Liverpool and City will win the title this season, they and their Top Six partners have already won a much bigger game. 

Premier League Fixtures (kick-off 3pm unless stated)

Friday 

Leicester City v Newcastle (8pm)

Saturday 

Tottenham v Huddersfield 12.30pm 

Brighton v Bournemouth 

Southampton v Wolves 

Fulham v Everton 

Burnley v Cardiff 

Manchester United v West Ham (5.30pm) 

Sunday 

Crystal Palace v Manchester City (2.05pm) 

Liverpool v Chelsea (4.30pm) 

Monday 

Watford v Arsenal (8pm)

 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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