Lest anyone at Anfield forget the fact, being top of the Premier League table around Christmas was not all it was cracked up to be. Even the night Liverpool stepped up there, by virtue of a point from a drab, goalless draw against West Ham in early December, they trooped off the pitch to muffled boos from their fans. Their grip on top spot lasted seven weeks before Manchester United reeled them in.
But with ascendancy suddenly looking a prospect once again, Jamie Carragher spoke yesterday of the way the squad had learnt and matured from taking the lead, then throwing it away. "Earlier on in the season, we hadn't been in that position at the top before and we weren't used to it. Maybe we didn't know how to deal with it," the defender said. "But we are maturing and getting used to the demands of fighting for a title. There's an improved mental strength throughout the team."
The key point of comparison for Carragher was that Monday stalemate against West Ham in December which, with Chelsea having lost at home to Arsenal, presented a gilt-edged opportunity to open a substantial gap, and Aston Villa's arrival on Sunday following United's implosion at Fulham. "This time the results have gone for us again, it was a big game that we had to win, and this time we were a lot calmer," said Carragher, whose club are digesting reports from Montreal that co-owner George Gillett may be ready to sell his share in the Montreal Canadiens hockey franchise.
The Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, has spoken already this season about the value of being the club in pursuit, much like his Valencia side were before they broke the Real Madrid/Barcelona hegemony in 2001-02 and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Manchester United's ascendancy placed the greater pressure on them. "Honestly, [our] players haven't really been talking about the title that much," Carragher said.
The symmetries are fascinating – Liverpool travelling to Fulham themselves after the international break while it is United's turn to face Villa at home. The midfielder Albert Riera said: "I think they [United] can feel us near to them. There will be a lot of pressure."