Not even considered dark horses at the start of the season, then with their chances downplayed by all at the club even as their form continued to keep them lurking around the upper echelons of the Premier League table, a first championship for 24 years is now very much there for the taking by Liverpool.
The shift came during a cauldron of emotion at Anfield on Sunday. A thrilling 3-2 defeat of Manchester City saw Liverpool supplant their vanquished rivals as the favorites to lift the trophy in what would be the most incredible and improbable title win of the Premier League era. Having finished eight and seventh in the past two seasons, there remains a sense of disbelief that they are now odds-on to do so.
Steven Gerrard’s incredible reaction after the final whistle on Sunday captured not only what the day meant to the city of Liverpool as it marked the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster, not only what a title win would mean to him personally, but the altered mood that the result has created. “This does not f****** slip now,” Liverpool’s captain screamed in a huddle of his teammates.
While he may have pointedly said otherwise just minutes later in a post-match interview, the title is now Liverpool’s to lose. It would still be a fantastic season were they finish second or even third, but they, and likely Gerrard more than anyone else, would forever rue letting this chance slip.
If they are to avoid doing so then clearly the visit of Chelsea to Anfield on Apr. 27 will be vital. A win for Chelsea could see both Jose Mourinho’s side and Manchester City overtake them. Against the man who did much to help him during his early days as a coach at Stamford Bridge, it is a game that will arguably present the greatest tactical challenge for Brendan Rodgers thus far in his young career.
Mourinho is arguably the best coach around at designing a strategy to get a desired result in a one-off game. And the Portuguese will fancy his stubborn side’s chances of nullifying the threat of Liverpool and hitting their suspect defense on the break. But Rodgers is also more than capable of adapting his approach, as he has to generally great success throughout this campaign. Perhaps crucially, the match also comes in between the two legs of Chelsea’s Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid. All five of Chelsea’s Premier League defeats this season have come immediately following a European match.
But, while the match with Chelsea catches the eye, every game in their run-in presents potential pitfalls. Not least this Sunday. The emotional energy that went into the match with Manchester City was extraordinary. An immediate let down in a match they are expected to win handily would be no surprise. And, while they may be playing a Norwich City team that have been insipid for much of the season, it is also a side fighting for their lives and who showed signs of life in their first match under interim manager Neil Adams last time out.
In the penultimate match comes a trip to Selhurst Park that also poses a danger. Crystal Palace may well be safe by that point, but it is hard to imagine manager Tony Pulis allowing his players to have an early holiday, while he will relish playing spoiler to Liverpool’s title chances.
Should they negotiate those challenges unscathed, their final match at home to a Newcastle United side that has very much been on the beach for several weeks already would appear the most straightforward of the lot. Yet a win on the final day with so much at stake can never be taken for granted. It is something Liverpool know all too well. Famously, in one of the Premier League’s closest ever title finishes, in 1994-95, a Liverpool side with little to play for beat Blackburn Rovers to almost cost the Lancashire club the championship.
Despite the monumental victory over Manchester City, the route to a long-coveted 19th championship then is far from simple. But the same is true for their rivals, and it is easy to imagine both Manchester City and Chelsea dropping points in their remaining fixtures. With momentum fully in their favor, what was up until recently unthinkable could soon become reality.