Liverpool can save Premier League from shambolic outcome amid VAR farce and 115 Man City charges

Luis Díaz of Liverpool reacts after a goal was incorrectly ruled offside during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on September 30, 2023 in London, England.
The Premier League race is so tight that the Luis Díaz VAR shambles that went against Liverpool could prove decisive. -Credit:Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

There was an interesting development in the Premier League last weekend. At the same time as Liverpool hosted Crystal Palace, suffering a defeat that put its title hopes in serious doubt, Darren England was making his return to top-flight VAR duty in West Ham vs Fulham.

England has been more or less stood down since his central role in the Luis Díaz farce against Spurs in September. He has slowly ramped up his top-flight refereeing duties over the last weeks and months, but this was his first return to the VAR booth for a Premier League fixture.

There will be no complaints from Liverpool about England’s return. In truth, the extent of his exile seems harsh — he made an error that was frankly waiting to happen, with the release of the VAR audio exposing a chaotic process barely fit for purpose.

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But the timing of the referee’s comeback only served to emphasize the nagging fear that has played at Liverpool minds ever since the Tottenham game: could that monumental mistake ultimately dictate the winner of the Premier League title?

With just six games to go, two points separate the top three. Of course, there are no concrete guarantees Liverpool would have won that match had the Díaz goal been awarded, but it would have been heavy favorite to do so. Had that happened, Jürgen Klopp’s side would be a point clear of Manchester City now, with its fate firmly in its own hands.

Every title race will have ‘what if’ moments. Plenty of them will relate to refereeing decisions. But just as a little refresher, the Díaz incident was a long way removed from a ‘usual’ error. It was of an entirely different class: the technology determined that a valid goal had been scored, but a miscommunication prevented the officials from awarding it.

Klopp was derided by the media for daring to mention the term ‘replay’, but that result will stick out like a sore thumb if Manchester City or Arsenal beat Liverpool to the Premier League title by a narrow margin. We’re dangerously close to the league effectively being decided by an administrative error.

This would be a complete mess for the Premier League, the so-called greatest league in the world. Frankly, it should be hoping against hope that Liverpool still emerges victorious for the sake of the division’s competitive integrity.

That’s especially true when you consider the most likely alternative is crowning Manchester City the champion for an unprecedented fourth consecutive season. Even at the best of times, this would be sub-optimal for ‘Brand Premier League’, which sells itself globally on its competitiveness; PSG, Juventus (repeatedly) and now Bayern Munich have all been overthrown more recently, as have Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Then you have to throw in the fact that Manchester City is still facing 115 Premier League charges. It stands accused by the league of cheating on an industrial scale.

Manchester City denies all of the charges. But until the process has been completed in front of an independent panel, there is an awkward period of limbo — the Premier League’s social channels will wax lyrical about Pep Guardiola’s side if it wins again, while its lawyers continue to make the case that the team’s current success was built on a foundation of prior rule-breaking.

Should the charges against Manchester City be proven, the panel is free to impose whatever punishment it sees fit. But retrospective title-stripping is considered highly unlikely, especially for the seasons after those covered by the core allegations. Each trophy added to the cabinet at the Etihad raises the stakes of the eventual hearing, with the verdict given even greater potential to fundamentally alter the Premier League narrative of the last decade or more.

Liverpool, of course, must go on controlling what it can control. The VAR incident, at least, will be rendered trivial unless the Reds can quickly re-find some form. But between that and the Manchester City charges, the Premier League is in danger of an embarrassing and shambolic end to the campaign — the wish for Klopp’s fairytale ending should extend well beyond the four walls of Anfield.