Time for Liverpool to start believing about title chances

Liverpool players applaud their supporters following the 3-0 win at Southampton.

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LONDON — These are giddy times to be associated with Liverpool Football Club. Their games are sparked by explosive flurries of goals, a flair for the dramatic, and the growing sense that something genuinely exciting is just around the corner. How big to dream? For some it’s probably too much to even dare think about it. But the temptation to study the fixture list and wonder what might be possible is understandable.

It feels like there is a sea change in the atmosphere around the club. It has not been easy to generally feel like excluded and achingly nostalgic bystanders for more than two decades while the league title has been hoisted mostly by Manchester United, but also Arsenal, Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea and Manchester City. This was an honor which, for most of the 1970s and 1980s, felt like a part of the Anfield furniture. They have seldom been close enough to even smell it since they last won it in 1990.

Brendan Rodgers, with his solid earnestness and garrulous speeches, did not initially strike people as the man to deal with all the loaded history and emotions that are tangled up with Liverpool’s relationship with the league title. But the way that the team have been rampaging in recent weeks, the gleeful abandon and ambition in their game, backed up by calm sense spoken by their manager, suggests they very much feel they belong in the conversation about who will finish top of the Premier League come May.

"That’s what we can now do, deal with expectancy," says Rodgers. "When I came in here there was a huge expectancy but the players couldn’t cope with it. But now we enjoy it. We relish it. It’s my job to take that pressure off them so that they can go and perform. Go play with energy, play with commitment, play with quality and they have done that."

The next match alone sizzles with possibility. Manchester United v Liverpool. Old Trafford. March 16th. At any time of any season it resonates. This one will be cranked up considerably. It was Sir Alex Ferguson who famously coined the phrase about knocking Liverpool "off their perch", and now, with United’s godfather now sitting upstairs in the directors’ box as David Moyes strains to handle the weight of the baton he was passed, Liverpool wonder whether they might have a chance to return the compliment.

March 16. It was five years ago to that very day that United hosted Liverpool during a season when the two north-west institutions were on a collision course with the Premier League title on the line. It hasn’t happened all that often in the last couple of decades, these two teams in direct confrontation when it comes to the big prize. In 2009, Liverpool produced a gob-smacking result — winning 4-1 — to ignite the hope that the Anfield club could prevail. Fernando Torres, who at that point assumed the kind of status in terms of Premier League goalscorers that Luis Suarez does now, was a beast. The Spaniard came third in the FIFA player of the year award that season, behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ferguson took that defeat sorely. "I thought we were the better team," he remarked, which felt like an absurd statement given the evidence on the pitch.

DRAWING UP CONCLUSIONS

Liverpool were buoyant. Hopeful. They won eight of their last nine games in the run-in, and drew the other in a freakish 4-4 draw with Arsenal. But United didn’t blink enough for it to make a difference. Ferguson’s team were champions again, with Liverpool runner-up. Close. But agonisingly, not close enough.

Maintaining the challenge beyond that season proved complex. Competing with the seriously wealthy was just too challenging. Within 18 months Torres had been prised away by Chelsea’s record-breaking bid. Manchester City were cranking up their assault on English football’s summit, powered by their oil-rich backers. Ferguson kept United ticking.

And this is why, no matter how this promising campaign finishes up, the way that it segues into next season is fascinating for Liverpool. Could this energy be sustained? Can the positive vibes keep them buoyant? Will they resist attempts from the super-rich to tempt Suarez away again? Might they bolster their own resources with some refined signings to improve them? The bigger picture question is important: can this Liverpool revival have serious, long-term substance?

In the meantime it is still going to take a monumental effort for Liverpool’s current side to get ahead of the strongest favorites. As this season hits its climax, they face both Manchester City and Chelsea at Anfield in the closing stages. That will be a critical test of their momentum. It will not just be their habit for springing sudden, deadly attacks — which is good enough even to mask any defensive imperfections against most teams — given a high-level test. It will also be a test of nerve up against heavyweight opponents with experience of winning the Premier League.  

"I think over the years people have expected us to tail off. Actually now I think we’re getting stronger," muses Rodgers. They certainly don’t give the impression this crest of a wave is ready to crash.