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Ahead of Chelsea’s FA Cup tie with Manchester City, Jose Mourinho wasn’t going to be quiet. In his Friday press conference, the Portuguese manager set about starting a war of words with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger in an attempt to get under the Frenchman’s skin as the finishing line for the Premier League title race comes into view. Chelsea, Mourinho said, are directly competing with City and Arsenal, as well as Liverpool who don’t have the same European commitments as the other three.
The significance of his former mentor mentioning Liverpool was not lost on manager Brendan Rodgers. “Go back to September 2012 when I came in here and look at what Jose said – that the club was not set up to win the league and that it would be a miracle if I won the league” he said, “So I take it as an incredible compliment that now, 18 months on, we are being talked about in that way.”
Liverpool’s improvement under Rodgers has indeed been remarkable. At this stage last season they sat ninth on 36 points, this time they are fourth with 53, just 4 points off Mourinho’s Chelsea who sit top.
They have scored 66 goals, 22 more than they had managed after 26 matches last term and although Rodgers has sought caution when speaking about any chance his side may have of winning the title, there is now a growing substance in the burgeoning optimism that they may achieve what they have not done for 23 years.
They are definitely playing with the conviction of potential champions, brushing aside Everton and then Arsenal at Anfield by a combined score of 9 goals to 1 while also displaying more resilient traits in away games with Stoke and Fulham were they didn’t play particularly well but still emerged with victories.
Narrow defeats at Manchester City and Chelsea remain their only losses in the past 13 games and even though concerns will remain over the recent lack of defensive stability that cost points against Aston Villa and West Brom, the Reds are playing with the momentum and swagger that could yet bring a sensational conclusion to an already great season.
With Manchester United experiencing turbulence in their transition under David Moyes, Liverpool have taken advantage to appear as certified favourites for a top four finish and a return to the Champions League after a four year absence. Tottenham Hotspur, who have endured their own unrest and upheaval, snap away at their heels just 3 points off that fourth spot, but Liverpool have enjoyed the continuity their rivals have not. Evolution not revolution has been the mantra.
With Spurs also involved with the demands of Europe and the exertion of Thursday night Europa League duties, Liverpool are positioned in a unique position. Rodgers would have been disappointed on Sunday night, after FA Cup elimination to Arsenal, to hear the cliché of being free to concentrate on the league, but that is now the case. He does not have to prepare his side for another midweek fixture from now until the season’s end, the path is clear for a final push with the cross-hairs pointed upwards.
Backed to the tune of £50 million in the summer, Rodgers made the shrewd acquisitions of Simon Mignolet, who replaced long-serving goalkeeper Pepe Reina, and Mamadou Sakho to bolster the back-line while Kolo Toure was signed up for free to add vast experience. The squad was also swelled with the arrivals of Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto while Victor Moses was also loaned in from Chelsea, though despite the business, few would have predicted such a projection in improvement.
They are now just 8 points away from beating last season’s tally of 61 points which positioned them seventh and the waters appear to be a lot calmer than they were last July when Rodgers found himself occupied with the potentially disruptive issue of Luis Suarez’s future.
With the Uruguayan threatening to leave Anfield whilst subject of concrete interest from Arsenal, Liverpool took a hard-line stance and persisted with the divisive striker when it could have been easier to sever ties with the player who would start the season in the midst of a seven game ban for biting, another incident in his dark personal history. With hindsight, it has been an exemplary performance from Liverpool and Rodgers who has managed to coax 23 goals in the 25 matches the striker has played since his return.
In that period he has struck up a frightening partnership with Daniel Sturridge who, after signing from Chelsea last January where he was used largely as a wide-man, has developed into one of the most prolific central strikers in the country with 19 goals from 22 games. It is testament to Rodgers’s sense of ambition that he has refused to subscribe to the growing popularity of the single striker system in favour of often pairing his two potent front-men by utilising a three-man defence.
Flanked on the right by lightning pace of Raheem Sterling, who has emerged from a difficult start to the season to be a genuine contender for Roy Hodgson’s World Cup plans, and the elegant Phillipe Coutinho scheming between the lines, it is a front-line that links together with peerless understanding and fluidity.
The way they set about dismantling both Everton and Arsenal was breathtaking while at the Etihad on Boxing Day they were unlucky, minus Sturridge, not to earn reward for carving through Manchester City’s back-line with little regard for their imperious home form.
With each player technically gifted and able to slot comfortably into a variety of positions, it is a wealth of attacking power that has meant Rodgers has been able to shift systems freely without losing any of the cohesion that became irresistible when battering Arsenal on the counter attack.
Go deeper behind them and you find more evidence of Rodgers’s tactical innovation and nous. Steven Gerrard has been eased into a deeper role to preserve his ageing legs and to harness his excellent passing ability as well as to negate the recent absence of Lucas Leiva.
Beside him Jordan Henderson has undergone vast improvement and his tireless work-rate and versatility, able to play centrally and on both wings, should present with him with an undeniable case when Hodgson puts together his squad for Brazil.
Joe Allen has been restricted to just 7 starts as he struggles for consistent form while Aspas and Alberto have both found adapting to the Premier League a difficult task, the latter yet to be trusted with a league start while the former has managed just 5. Attempts were made to add to the squad in January as Mohamed Salah, who eventually signed for Chelsea, and Yehven Konoplyanka were pursued, but the month ended barren.
The lack of trusted reliable strength in depth caused Rodgers, for example, to turn to the previously untested 21 year old Joao Teixeira in the final stages of the victory at Fulham. “I saw the Manchester City-Chelsea game the other night and I look at the squads they have, which they have built up over the last few years, and it’s very difficult for us even though we have competed right the way through the season. So, I wouldn’t say for us this year, no. We would not be challengers for it” Rodgers has said recently.
Kolo Toure’s recent errors have threatened to undermine any chance of a title challenge but with Daniel Agger now back and ready to resume his strong partnership with the resurgent Martin Skrtel in the absence of Sakho, it may just be the platform that Rodgers needs to steer his team over the line.
For now, that line will remain a return to the Champions League though boundless ambition may yet see them go further.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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