at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
A year is a long time in football. Liverpool know this. What they don’t know is just how far their remarkable rebirth can take them in the Barclays Premier League.
At the end of February 2013 Brendan Rodgers’s side were eighth, 29 points behind leaders Manchester United. They were behind West Bromwich Albion, too, having just lost to Steve Clarke’s team for the second time in one season.
Twelve months on and Liverpool’s title credentials are under discussion, Steven Gerrard’s last-minute penalty at Fulham on Wednesday having announced them as a team not yet ready to disappear from the rear-view mirror of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.
On Merseyside, they are thankful. Rodgers, Liverpool’s likeable, intense manager, has given the fans their self-respect back and that, for now, is enough. It’s been overdue.
But the question doing the rounds at Anfield as well as the Emirates, the Etihad and Stamford Bridge at the end of a week in which Arsenal, Chelsea and City dropped points is: are Liverpool really good enough to win the league?
Having already beaten Arsenal, United, Tottenham and Everton this season, Liverpool have shown themselves capable of raising their level for the games that matter.
Those present at Anfield for the dismantling of Arsenal on Saturday, for example, struggled to remember the last time Liverpool had played in quite such a fashion.
With City and Chelsea yet to visit Anfield in the league, there is a case to suggest Liverpool’s home form could take them to within dipping distance of the winner’s line in May.
Add that to the fact Liverpool have no European football to distract or tire them and that they have players returning from injury rather than the other way round and it is little wonder Rodgers’s men are beginning to talk up their chances a little.
Captain Gerrard said: ‘Against Arsenal, we showed how much class we’ve got. We’ve got talent all over the pitch and at home, with the atmosphere behind us, you don’t have to motivate yourself. More often than not you play well.
‘But coming away on a Wednesday night, windy, on a difficult pitch, away to Fulham was a big test for the team.
‘We’re in the mix. It’s still early days and we’re not going to get carried away. But we are in good form. We feel as if we’re dark horses and we do feel we have the advantage, in a funny way, of no European football.’
Gerrard’s return to supreme form this season is perhaps illustrative of the work Rodgers has done. Playing now as a deep-lying holding midfielder, his new position looks capable of adding another couple of years to his career.
He is not the only one to benefit from Rodgers’s shrewdness. Players such as Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson have improved beyond recognition in 12 months, while the impish Brazilian Coutinho appears to have been born with Anfield DNA.
The nurturing and development of these players lies at the core of Liverpool’s rise. Sturridge has scored in his last seven Premier League games, reducing the team’s reliance on Luis Suarez that was a feature of early season. Suarez has scored in only three of 11 games since Christmas but still Liverpool have prospered.
What remains to be seen is whether Rodgers has a deep enough squad — whether a poor January transfer window will haunt them — and whether Liverpool prove themselves secure enough at the back to cope on the days that attacking success eludes them.
Kolo Toure’s travails have dismayed Liverpool fans and amused neutrals. The Ivorian remains a step down from the quality required at the top level these days. It is alarming he is in the team at all.
Liverpool’s defending at Fulham — and at West Bromwich 10 days earlier — was not secure. At the Hawthorns it cost them as they drew 1-1 while at Fulham they were rescued by Gerrard’s late penalty.
At home against Tottenham, City and Chelsea in April, Liverpool will have to show improvement in this area if they hope to prosper.
Deep down, Liverpool perhaps know this title tilt has come a year too soon. When interviewed on Wednesday’s Match of the Day Gerrard, interestingly, spoke only of finishing in the top four. That in itself would represent a significant achievement and would earn Rodgers the new contract he deserves.
Liverpool and their unfailingly romantic support will dream of greater glories this Valentine’s Day, and why not? It’s been a while since they had much to fantasise about. – Daily Mail