London – Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho believes that Liverpool's absence from European competition this season means that they must be considered genuine contenders for the Premier League title.
Liverpool's seventh-place finish last season denied them a place in Europe, but they are firmly in the domestic title picture now and trail Chelsea by a point ahead of their trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Key to their impressive form have been the goals of Luis Suarez, who has found the net 19 times in 13 games since returning from a ban for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during a game in April.
However, while Mourinho is aware of Suarez's importance to Brendan Rodgers's side, he says that their strengths do not begin and end with the Uruguayan striker.
“He didn't start the season, with suspension, and after that the numbers are fantastic,” Mourinho said.
“When he came back, it was a big plus. But let's be fair:
Liverpool did very well without him when he was suspended.
“I think they can (win the Premier League), because they are good, because Brendan is good, because they have time to prepare the team tactically, because they are not involved in the heat of the knockout situation in the Champions League or even Europa League.”
Having invested around £60 million ($99 million, 72 million euros) in new players during the close season, and welcomed Mourinho back to the club, Chelsea were expected to feature prominently in the title race.
They began the weekend two points shy of leaders Arsenal in third place, but Mourinho feels that the level of competition at the top of the table means that Champions League qualification has to be his side's priority.
“This year the pressure will be not just to win the title, but also to get top four,” he said.
“Man City are the big, big, big favourites. Liverpool are on holidays (from Europe for) one season: one week to prepare a match, play the match, one more week to prepare the next match.
“This is an advantage, an unbelievable advantage. And Man United, in spite of being a few points behind, are the reality of the last years.
“Arsenal are like us. For many years they've not been at the top of the league. Chelsea won the league a few years ago (in 2010), but in the last two leagues were 25 and 14 points off the leaders.
“For us and for Arsenal, we have to try and do the best we can. We'll do our job, we'll try to finish top four. And if we manage to be in the top four, let's see what we can do (in terms of the title).”
Liverpool manager Rodgers spent three years working under Mourinho as a youth coach during the Portuguese's first spell at Chelsea between 2004 and 2007.
Following subsequent spells as a manager at Watford, Reading and Swansea City, he will go up against Mourinho for the first time on Sunday, and he says that he owes his former mentor a debt of gratitude.
“I probably wouldn't be sat here today if it wasn't for him. He played a huge part,” Rodgers said.
“He was brilliant for me. He really took me under his wing. I was a 30-year-old nobody who worked in youth development, who was assigned to come in and work there with him.
“From the first day of meeting him, he gave me the confidence and responsibility and accountability to work at that level. There are not many managers that would have done that.” – Sapa-AFP