Brendan Rodgers looked like a man who suspected a wind-up when he was asked, half an hour after his side had defeated Manchester United on 1 September, whether he harboured hopes of winning the Premier League. There was a brief, uncharacteristic silence, then a little laugh before he managed to put together a reply. “It’s a fair enough question,” he said, before dismissing it.
Since the league season was only three games old at that stage, he had reason to tread carefully, though the challenge of managing expectations at Anfield is as old as the hills. But good luck to Rodgers for any attempt to contain them this weekend, which could quite conceivably conclude with his team top at Christmas for the first time since they led Chelsea by a point in 2008. Leading the pack is contingent on them beating Cardiff City today and Chelsea beating Arsenal on Monday evening.
Topping the table when gifts litter the trees will generate statistical evidence that the club’s three-year exile from the Champions League may soon be over. Only once since the Premier League began in 1992-93 have the side leading the league on Christmas Day failed to make the top four in the final reckoning. It is also conceivable that they will end 2013 as the second-best-performing side in the calendar year Premier League table, with only Arsenal’s record superior.
This is undoubtedly a better Liverpool than last season’s edition – demolishing teams in their eight home league games with 22 goals, having mustered nine in the same quota last term. Their pressing, attacking football has delivered the kind of feast unknown at Anfield even in the best of times.
If they score four or more goals against Cardiff today – which is quite conceivable – they will equal the club record, set in 1895-96 and equalled in 1927-28, of scoring at least four times in five successive home league games. Daniel Sturridge’s removal from the equation has not yet been an encumbrance on Luis Suarez, whose rich period of goals is a by-product of his being released from a little of last season’s burden.
But comparisons with the last time Liverpool scaled the heights at this time must be treated with caution. Imperious though this home form has been, they are yet to provide emphatic evidence that they can beat the elite teams – or simply win – away from home.
This might seem a perverse analysis of a club who have just hammered Tottenham Hotspur 5-0, but that result and a breeze past bottom-placed Sunderland have been Liverpool’s only away wins since the three points clinched at Villa Park on 24 August. When the ability to replicate that intensity is tested at the Etihad Stadium on Boxing Day and then Chelsea, three days later, we will know a lot more about their capacity to be “in the conversation,” as Rodgers likes to put it.
The full landscape of their travels reads thus: disappointing at Newcastle United, comfortably put away by Arsenal, overrun in midfield during a Merseyside derby in which Everton emerged with the greater distinction, abject at Hull and magisterial at Tottenham.
Behind Rodgers’ strong convictions lurks a sense of unknowing about whether the central areas can be strong enough to hold off next week’s two opponents. The suggestion that the best days of Steven Gerrard might be in the past is one that puzzles Rafael Benitez, who from his position in Napoli feels his former captain possesses all of his old mettle – even if that cannot be called upon twice a week, every week. But the two-man attack has certainly left a midfield comprised of Gerrard, Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen shipping water at times.
Defence has been a cause of further uncertainty, with 13 goals conceded in six away games before Tottenham and the rearguard combinations being changed in all of those games, if you include the wing-backs.
This Liverpool side really is not as formidable as the 2008-09 vintage, who lost only twice all season, looked capable of going anywhere and winning – and did precisely that at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu and Old Trafford. It was a team in possession of Javier Mascherano, the Argentina captain, in the midfield area still under development now; Xabi Alonso; Gerrard and Fernando Torres in tandem; and a fit Fabio Aurelio (the Brazilian left-back was an incredibly fine player when free of his many injuries). The central defensive partnerships also had a conviction about them: perm any two from Sami Hyypia, Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher, with Martin Skrtel finding his way.
And all of that still did not prove enough to take Benitez’s Liverpool to the title, with their 86-point tally four short of Manchester United’s. They travelled to most places with a swagger but draws against West Ham, Fulham and Stoke told on them in the end.
The comparison between the two squads should take nothing away from what Rodgers has created in a very short period of time under monumental weight of expectation.
But once this weekend’s obstacle is navigated, his side can do worse than draw on the indefatigability of the Benitez era as they seek to take a big stride later next week – conceding fewer goals from set pieces, combating physical opposition, maintaining their shape and acquiring solidity. All legendary aspects of that golden Champions League era which Liverpool are reaching for once again.