One of the most remarkable aspects of Liverpool’s season is the minimal amount of attention that it has attracted. Despite having led the table for a number of weeks before Christmas – eventually surrending the summit only after back-to-back festive fixtures away to the two title favourites – and having been as consistent as any team since New Year, there has remained a reluctance from some sections of the media to even acknowledge that Brendan Rodgers and his team are in the midst of a very serious title challenge.
Only two games ago, the BBC’s front page headline to Liverpool’s win against Swansea stated that the result had merely kept alive Liverpool’s hopes of finishing fourth. That it did, but the win not only stretched Liverpool’s lead over Tottenham to six points, but reduced the gap between them and the leaders, Chelsea, to just four points – and only one point behind Man City.
Yet the reporting of Manchester United’s win at Crystal Palace the day before included reference to how David Moyes’ team were still in the race for Champions League qualification having moved “to just eight points off the top four”. Liverpool, at the time, were the team occupying fourth place, and not only had a game in hand in addition to the eight point advantage, but also a vastly superior goal difference. United, therefore, ended the weekend with effectively a 12 point difference to make up.
It is a mystery how a Man United revival was considered realistic, while Liverpool were not even being mentioned as a contender for the title – particularly when taking into account the two clubs’ performances over the season, as well as remaining fixtures.
It’s fully understandable that critics have reservations of mentioning Liverpool in the same breath as Chelsea, Man City – or even Man United, despite a disastrous season for the defending champions. After all, Liverpool have finished the last four seasons in an average position of 7th, and an average of more than 27 points behind the winners.
There’s nothing undeserved about where Liverpool find themselves in the table however and, more significantly, there is no evidence that it’s a one-off.
The strike partnership of Suarez and Sturridge has been in place for around 14 months and seen the two players net more than 60 league goals in that space of time. Both players have missed half a dozen games this season, yet are the country’s two leading goalscorers.
Behind the front two, Philippe Coutinho is another of Rodgers’ signings from January 2013 who settled quickly and has played a key part in the club’s success, while Raheem Sterling has made further progress and built on the promise he showed during the first half of last season. Jordan Henderson, too, has made big strides in his game this season, and is likely to be rewarded with a place in England’s world cup squad.
Even in Liverpool’s frequently criticised defence there is plenty of quality and experience, but injuries have led to a host of varying defensive line-ups during the season, and the unsettled back four has too often looked shaky.
The biggest obvious weakness is in the quality of players in reserve, but for that to be addressed, it’s essential that Liverpool achieve regular qualification for the Champions League. Only then can the club even attempt to compete with the top clubs from London and Manchester in the transfer market.
Five years ago this month, Liverpool handed Real Madrid a record European defeat, during a season which also saw the Reds’ strongest domestic campaign since the last title win in 1990. Rather than continuing to improve, as clubs like Chelsea and Man United would do, even after a successful season, there followed two years of profit-making transfer windows at Anfield, under an ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks that also involved public infighting and even a battle to avoid administration, such was the scale of the financial problems caused by the American duo.
It was simply Liverpool’s bad luck that a dramatic change in fortunes came at the same time as an unprecedented level of player investment was being undertaken at Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour, and a strong Tottenham team were finally beginning to live up to their potential.
Both sides took full advantage of Liverpool’s vulnerability, and although each subsequent season has started with Liverpool having hopes of finishing in the top four, each campaign has ended with the painful reality that the Reds have simply not been in the same class as the teams above them.
Earning their way back into contention for a place amongst Europe’s finest has seemed a long road, and in light of the quality of the other six teams who have consistently finished above Liverpool over the past three seasons, there’s been no certainty of avoiding an even more lengthy absence from challenging for titles or achieving Champions League qualification.
The progress and hard work shown by everyone at the club since ownership changed hands for a second time in three years is clearly reaping rewards though, and a top four finish – at the very least – is within reach, barring a catastrophic conclusion to the season.
Should Liverpool see out the challenge, the next aim will be to consolidate their position amongst the country’s top teams, and ensure that a top four finish isn’t restricted to a single season. It’s a task which for Liverpool will be every bit as demanding as breaking into the top four in the first place. Spurs and Everton are likely to remain a threat, and Man United are certain to embark on an expensive overhaul of an underachieving squad in order to quickly put David Moyes’ disappointing first year behind them.
But with the right additions, and the continuation of a strong work ethic, there’s no reason to believe that progress under Brendan Rodgers is to come to a halt at any time soon, and for fans of Liverpool there is finally a genuine feeling again that exciting times lie ahead.