No one seemed too sure who the brand new white Roller parked at Liverpool's Melwood training ground yesterday actually belonged to but the registration plate was as aspirational as the badge on the front. 'LFC1' it read and since only goal difference divides Rafael Benitez's side from Luiz Felipe Scolari's Chelsea ahead of their encounter at Stamford Bridge tomorrow suggestions that Liverpool might wind up top of the pile are not looking quite as far-fetched as they were two months ago.
Ahead of a season which seemed destined to bring just the same internal strife as the last – Benitez letting it be known in late August that he had considered quitting over the refusal of his American owners to sanction Gareth Barry's arrival and his baffling claim amid that fiasco that he was being blamed "for everything, from global warming to high petrol prices" – the prospect of his side standing toe-to-toe this weekend with the side which eliminated them from Europe last spring seemed unthinkable.
But since that disastrous night at Stamford Bridge, six months last Wednesday, Liverpool have collected 26 points to the west London club's 25 and defeat has become alien to them. Statistics can tell any story, of course. One of the more bizarre to have popped up this week revealed that Liverpool would be languishing in mid-table if every match had been stopped on the stroke of 58 minutes. That is because Liverpool have honed the knack – against the two Manchester sides and Wigan – of coming from behind to win. That is a sign of a team with title pretensions, you might conclude. Or one of a defensively fragile side who shouldn't have gone behind in the first place.
The truth, as always in football, lies somewhere in the middle. Liverpool are not on an inevitable straight trajectory to their first title since 1990 – as anyone who saw them play in Liège or Sunderland will vouch – but there is no doubt that their winning habit is an infectious one. It engenders the kind of spirit needed in a side who have won only once at Chelsea since their title winning days ended 18 years ago and who are facing that ever-lengthening unbeaten home record of Chelsea's. (Four years and 86 matches for those who'd lost count.)
Benitez makes no bones about the fact that days like tomorrow are the ones which will tell him whether his side really have finally arrived at the top table and whether Jose Mourinho was right when he predicted in August that Liverpool would win the league because of their manager's longevity. "Clearly, if you want to have a chance at the end you have to beat the top sides," the Liverpool manager said yesterday. "If you talk about first position it's just one team so the difference could be one point. So it's important to beat these teams." He cited the 2005/6 season, in which last-minute defeat to Manchester United deprived Benitez of finishing the season ahead of them. (Chelsea, he neglected to say, were a further eight points clear as Champions.)
But that point aside, Benitez refused to countenance any talk of first place. Aware, through bitter experience, of his fans' tendency to grasp at straws at this time of the year, his strategy appears to involve making Liverpool the invisible team of the Premier League. Benitez spoke with relish yesterday of one of his two title-winning seasons at Valencia in which his side were seven points behind at January but sneaked under the radar to finish eight points clear of all the rest. That seems to be how he wants Liverpool to do things, free of all the pressure that goes with setting the pace.
"That season [at Valencia] we were coming from behind, little by little," Benitez said. "The people were not talking about us as title contenders until April. It's easier because when people talk too much, [you] depend on the mentality and character of the players [to cope with it]"
That was why Ferguson's little dig at Liverpool yesterday would have done Benitez no harm at all. Ferguson fancies Arsenal, rather than Liverpool, to end Chelsea's home record. "Liverpool v Chelsea games are so tight it will probably be a draw, whereas Arsenal could win there because they've got the quality to win." Let him talk, Benitez countered. "We don't worry too much what other people are saying about us," he said. "In two or three months time we will see and after we will talk. In football experience shows you cannot talk too much."
There is a composure in the way he speaks which is far removed from the internal strife of last autumn, and considerably less chaos in his teams as well. Benitez is rotating far less and has settled on several fixed points in his side, most notably Steven Gerrard, always through the middle. "I think that Chelsea have used 24 players and we have used 22 so more or less we are at the same level – Manchester United 23 and most teams 22," Benitez said. This won't last forever. Benitez also said he will soon " need to change players because we will play more games in a shorter space of time." But the consistent presence of Dirk Kuyt, Albert Riera and Robbie Keane – who may start tomorrow after his groin strain in Madrid midweek – is gradually growing into his role. Fernando Torres is still ruled out with a hamstring injury, but Liverpool's victory without him against Manchester United will give them belief that they can succeed again.
Though he would never say so, that defence may be Liverpool's undoing. Though Fabio Aurelio is fit to play, Daniel Agger, Alvaro Arbeloa and Andrea Dossena have all shown frailties at different points this season, and Benitez will be ruing Martin Skrtel's absence with ligament damage until the New Year.
A few years back Benitez disclosed privately that he believed only two or three of his Liverpool players would make it into the Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United sides and it is a measure of their new-found potential that he thinks those days are gone. How many would make it today? "A lot of them," Benitez said.Reuse content