The mood in Liverpool, a city with such an incredible sense of romance, is probably best defined by the thin threads of hope which people of a Red disposition have been clinging to all week – with fragility at first, but more and more purposefully as another weekend of destiny has approached.
There was only wretchedness six days ago. Films marking the 24th anniversary of the club’s last title success, which had been planned for the club’s website, did not seem such a good idea when the anniversary came around on Monday. But then talk turned to the opposition Manchester City will face as they defend their marginal advantage – a goal difference of eight. Conversations embraced the notion that Everton’s Roberto Martinez, an idealist, will want to beat City today in a way that his predecessor David Moyes, an Anfield-hating pragmatist, would not.
They also encompassed such elaborate theories as the one, aired on the club’s TV station in midweek, that West Ham will be chastened enough by their 6-0 League Cup hammering at City in January to win at the Etihad next weekend. Liverpool beat Crystal Palace 9-0 in September 1989 and then lost 4-3 to them in the FA Cup seven months later, that intricate line of argument runs.
West Ham also have ex-Liverpool players Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, of course. Maybe an omen in a finale during which Liverpool loanee Fabio Borini struck for Sunderland at Chelsea. Downing helping win a title for Liverpool? Yes, this place really can dream.
The question of what might happen at Goodison tonight is of greatest complexity, of course. That stadium’s formidable atmosphere is part of the obstacle it presents and how the usual rabid hostility can be summoned up for a game which could usher the league trophy towards the Anfield boardroom is difficult to know. Brendan Rodgers, that master of communication pulled all the right levers yesterday – deftly talking up that “great club” Everton and the mathematical possibility that they can finish in the top four. “I believe,” was part of his answer to the question of whether there might yet be another twist in this story, and by the time the Liverpool manager had finished even the most hardened cynic had not caught a little of his conviction that this most romantic story might have an ending to match.
Liverpool’s challenge at Palace on Monday night will be to navigate through a similar brick wall to the one that proved unassailable against Chelsea six days ago. There was some learning to be done from a 2-0 defeat in which the side “ran out of patience,” as Rodgers put it. “It’s something we’re going to have to improve on but as a coach that’s one of my strengths,” he said. “I learn quickly.” And by the time he had finished declaring how “that is the job for me – to help the players find solutions”, you had a sense of what he brings.
It’s hard to take at face value his suggestion that Steven Gerrard had immediately been able to put away the trauma of his slip against Chelsea. But you do feel that Rodgers was the man who, perhaps by midweek, had helped Gerrard move on. “I think it was a wee bit overanalysed, if I’m honest,” Rodgers said. “He slipped, bless him. It happens.”
Daniel Sturridge can be chalked up on the long list of grounds for hope. His near invisibility after arriving from the bench against Chelsea was actually a product of his part-fitness, we now know. The hamstring injury he sustained against City last month was more serious than expected, Rodgers revealed, and he has been in what the manager calls “a much better phase this week,” ahead of Palace.
Rodgers will tune into the Goodison match on television tonight. “I’m not one who says I’ll be on the golf course. I love football,” he said. But when someone tried coaxing him into saying he would become an Everton fan for a few hours he stood his ground. “I will concentrate on Liverpool and Liverpool alone. It might not be good TV for me to say that,” he insisted. His team won’t die wondering what might have happened if they had only held on to hope.