By: Andrew Pasco
In the history of the Premier League no team has ever finished first without finishing at least third in the season before. This is just one of several records Liverpool FC are aiming to shatter this season. An 8th place finish in 2012 was followed by a 7th place finish in 2013; it represented a small improvement in the table after Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge. But, amongst the Anfield support, the ground work laid last year to establish a possession based, short passing game gave hope for better things to come. The results may not have been delivered consistently but there was more intent about Liverpool’s game and a willingness for attractive attacking football. Expectations for this season were to see a continuation of that progression and a steady improvement up the league table, finishing 4th place would have been considered a massive achievement.
A promising start to the new season gave Liverpool a platform to build from and grow in confidence. Liverpool’s first true statement of intent came in December when they paid a visit to rivals Tottenham. Both teams began the season with similar ambitions, though expectations were higher for the London club following the sale of Gareth Bale to Madrid and the subsequent reinvestment of $150M US to bring in seven new players. Liverpool themselves rebuffed an approach from Arsenal for their talisman Luis Suarez, and it was through Suarez that Liverpool dismantled Tottenham 5-0. On their own ground. 5-0! It was a result that drove Liverpool to top of the league on Christmas and resulted in a change in manager for Tottenham.
Liverpool’s 2013 ended with consecutive 2-1 defeats away to front runners Manchester City and Chelsea, and – even though the defeats were narrow – Liverpool’s title charge was subsequently dismissed. The first quarter of 2014 has seen Liverpool bounce back and put together and incredible run, going unbeaten in the league. 4-0 and 5-1 home wins over Everton and Arsenal, and back to back 3-0 away wins against Southampton and Manchester United. Such form has drawn Liverpool back within touching distance of top spot, yet questions still remain about the legitimacy of their title chances. They have a young inexperienced side with considerably less depth on the bench and a manager who is only in his third season in a top division. The question all along has been, “Can they handle the pressure?” So far every question has been answered, more often than not it has been answered resoundingly.
So this past Saturday, when Chelsea were caught by an inspired Crystal Palace side and Man City drew with Arsenal, another win for Liverpool against Tottenham would return them to top of the league. The build up to the game demonstrated the sudden shift in perception towards the Reds. Until this point they had been thought of as the dark horse putting up a valiant effort before ultimately falling short of the top spot. Now even more questions are being asked about pressure and experience, with new Tottenham manager, Tim Sherwood, even joining the fun, claiming:
“Liverpool have gone from seventh last year and now they must be believing, with seven games left, that they can actually win this Premier League title. I’d still tip Man City. They have got that firepower, as well as Liverpool have. It just boils down to whether Liverpool can cope in the run-in, because it is nothing like anything else. Now they have to believe that they’ve got something there that might fall through their grasp and might slip away, and believe me, that’s a really bad feeling to have, because perhaps you don’t play with the freedom that you normally played with earlier on in the season.”
Given all the speculation around Liverpool title credentials, I thought it was appropriate that their shirt sponsor was replaced for the game by their official charity “Seeing is Believing”, an international aid group focusing on preventable blindness. Another 4-0 victory. Another rival dismissed. Another question answered. With six games remaining Liverpool are back on top of the league and have their fate in their hands. Man City and Chelsea still have to visit Liverpool so nothing is decided yet, but it’s safe to say that it’s no longer just the Anfield faithful who believe.