They’re starting to believe at Anfield, and who could blame them?
Liverpool fans are often mocked for their optimism – “it’s their year,” is a regular retort from rival supporters – but there’s something different brewing this season.
The cheers which greeted the final whistle against Newcastle on Boxing Day were topped a few moments later, as news of a late Christmas present filtered through from the King Power Stadium. Did anyone order a six-point lead at the top of the Premier League table?
Leicester’s victory over Manchester City means it is Tottenham, not the reigning champions, who stand as Liverpool’s nearest challengers right now.
City, who have lost three of their last four in the league, have seen a two-point lead become a seven-point deficit in the space of two-and-a-half weeks. Even their massive advantage in terms of goal difference has been wiped out by Jurgen Klopp’s relentless Reds, who have now won their last eight league games, conceding just two goals in the process.
“Pretty perfect,” was how Klopp described things after watching the latest of those wins, a 4-0 stroll against a dogged, determined but ultimately outgunned Newcastle side.
Liverpool were three up when, all of a sudden, news of Ricardo Pereira’s bolt from the blue at Leicester filtered through. First a cheer, then a ripple, then a wave of noise, from the Kop through the Main Stand and down to the Anfield Road end. It felt – and sounded – like a big moment.
“I’m really naïve,” joked Klopp afterwards. “I thought it was for us!”
Welcome to a Premier League title race, Jurgen. A place where every moment, every goal, every twist can feel seismic. Liverpool, of course, are the club which craves a league title, maybe above all others. As 2019 hurtles into view, so does that most tantalising of prospects.
“Long way to go, 19 games to play,” stated Klopp, and he is right to be cautious. He called for “tunnel vision” from his players, and insisted news of City’s latest setback “didn’t do a lot” for his mood. He’s not ready to look beyond the here and now, though he laughed heartily when told by a reporter that “if you just say you’re going to win the title then we can all go home.”
Meanwhile, his supporters begin to let their minds wander. Liverpool are now guaranteed top spot heading into the New Year, and barring a hefty swing in terms of goal difference, they would still be sitting pretty even if they were to lose their next two fixtures. The best that City can hope for after they entertain the Reds on January 3 is a one-point deficit. Who’d have believed that a fortnight ago?
Before that game, of course, there is business to take care of. Liverpool entertain Arsenal on Saturday; City travel to Southampton the following day. Spurs, whose form is excellent and whose credentials must not be ignored, will hope for slip-ups from both as they start the weekend at home to Wolves.
Klopp has been clear in his belief that Mauricio Pochettino’s team are to be considered genuine challengers this season. The Londoners, remarkably, have yet to draw a league game, but with 15 wins from 19 games, and 11 goals in their past two matches, they are right in the picture now. Liverpool’s win at Wembley, secured back in September, looks more valuable with each passing week.
So too does Riyad Mahrez’s missed penalty at Anfield a month later. Had City emerged with a victory that day, who knows how the landscape would look now? These are big, big moments, which up to now have gone Liverpool’s way. How they have taken advantage.
Suddenly, it is all there for them. They look better equipped now than they have at any point since securing their last league title back in 1990.
That includes the 1990-91 season, when they were seven points clear at Christmas but eventually finished seven adrift of Arsenal. It includes 2008-09 when a 5-1 win at Newcastle in late-December – with Benitez in the Reds dugout – left them 10 points ahead of eventual champions Manchester United.
And it includes the 2013-14 campaign, when Luis Suarez was ripping it up and Brendan Rodgers was seeking to “build a team like Shankly did”. Rodgers, of course, came as close as anybody to bringing the title back to Merseyside.
Now, his replacement finds himself in the box seat. All season long, Klopp has looked and sounded like a man who knows there is something building here. As each week passes, as each challenge his met, his team back up his confidence.
They are, remarkably, on course to finish the season with 102 points. Not since 1987-88, and arguably the greatest (or at least most-vaunted) team in the club’s history, have they stood unbeaten after 19 league games. Not even that team, of Barnes and Beardsley, of Rush and Hansen, could match this one in terms of points, wins or goals conceded.
There are likely, of course, to be plenty of twists and turns between now and May. If City’s troubles have been celebrated this week, they should also remind fans just how easily things can change at this level. Pressure can do funny things, even to the most brilliant of players.
For now, though, Liverpool are handling everything that is thrown at them. Unbeaten at home and unbeaten away, a dozen clean sheets from 19 matches, goals from all areas and the kind of squad strength which has so often been lacking in previous years; it is hard to find too many weaknesses right now.
“They have shown they are good enough to win the title,” said Benitez. Adored in these parts, the Spaniard knows quality when he sees it.
And so the Liverpool train rolls on to Arsenal. Those in Red have had everything they wished for this Christmas. Would one more win to round the year off be too much to ask?