The “chihuahua” from Merseyside has proven to have a bite behind the bark.
Liverpool emerged victorious over Manchester City in a topsy-turvy encounter to finish the weekend not just clear at the summit of the Premier League, but as the outright shock favourites to go on and lift the trophy.
Brendan Rodgers’ tongue-in-cheek response to Jose Mourinho’s “little horse” comment humorously managed to minimise expectation a few months ago. But Sunday’s victory over one of their title rivals has fuelled the belief amongst the club’s fanbase. Despite having never reigned supreme in the Premier League era, many of the Anfield faithful now expect Liverpool to be crowned champions come the end of the season.
Having been cast in the role of plucky underdog for so much of the campaign, will Brendan Rodgers’ side be affected by this shift in perception?
The evidence from Sunday’s victory would suggest not. Rodgers’ side delivered an impressive first half to stride into a 2-0 lead before resolutely overcoming a wobble to secure the three points through Philippe Coutinho’s late strike.
Speaking after the match, the Liverpool manager’s belief and confidence in his players to deliver shone through in his comments. Rodgers stated “we’ve been put under pressure in a very big game against a big opponent but you can see from our football that we are coping” before adding “my message to the players is to continue. We don’t need to change.”
Self-belief and confidence in Liverpool to now emerge triumphant in the title race has permeated every corner of the club. Captain Steven Gerrard claimed that the victory over City was the club’s “biggest statement” of intent yet.
Although the Merseysiders haven’t triumphed in England’s top division since 1990, there are enough experienced figures in Rodgers’ side to guide the rest. Raheem Sterling’s opening goal at the weekend would suggest that the youngsters are yet to be fazed by the pressure but the likes of Gerrard and Luis Suarez will have a crucial role to play in the coming month.
The bookmakers in the aftermath of Sunday’s result have almost unanimously installed Liverpool as the favourites to lift the trophy in May. Bet365 are currently offering odds as short as 4/5 on this outcome, with Ladbrokes and SkyBet along with many others offering 8/11.
Tommy Smith in the Liverpool Echo argues that Liverpool have been handling the pressure for months now, citing their comprehensive victories over the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Manchester United as evidence. But with so few matches left in the season, this is arguably the first time that last season’s seventh placed side have been definitive favourites for the trophy.
Despite sitting top at Christmas, Liverpool were still considered rank outsiders by most at that point. Valiant performances against Chelsea and City in the festive period failed to yield any points and it was presumed that the Merseysiders would gradually slide out of the title picture.
But unlike Arsenal, Liverpool have managed to peak at just the right time. An incredible run of ten consecutive victories in the league have propelled the club into the driving seat in the title race with just under a month to go. Even the most ardent Liverpool fans at the beginning of the campaign wouldn’t have dreamed that the club would occupy this position at this stage of the season.
Seemingly the neutrals’ favourites, there is no evidence to suggest at this point that Liverpool will wilt now that they find themselves as the frontrunners. Comprehensive victories against their rivals have been complemented by gritty performances against Sunderland and West Ham. The best teams manage to win when they aren’t at their best and Rodgers’ side have proven themselves capable of doing so in recent weeks.
But at the end of the day, this is the Premier League. Already this season, Arsenal and Chelsea have drifted back into the chasing pack having occupied the box seat, the former to an obviously more dramatic extent. To invoke a classic footballing cliche, Liverpool may have overcome one giant hurdle in defeating City but there are still four “cup finals” to go.
Sky may just be saying it to drum up interest in their coverage, but their will be more twists and turns to come. From Sunday’s match alone, Jordan Henderson’s suspension and the extent of Daniel Sturridge’s knock could prove pivotal in Liverpool’s prospects.
Eyes will inevitably turn to the fixture against Chelsea at Anfield as the most decisive but Rodgers’ side cannot afford to let their gaze wonder beyond their next match at Carrow Road. Having now been assigned the definitive tag of favourites with just four matches to go, it will be interesting to see whether Liverpool can cope with this additional burden.