THE result of the Manchester derby confirmed that Liverpool would be the next Premier League champions, in the minds of many football fans.
Not that I’ve met any Liverpool fan that is in any way ready to accept such a scenario. After all, we are talking about Liverpool here. The side that twice coughed-up the title from winning positions in the past five seasons.
City’s defeat at the hands of their neighbour left them 14 points off the pace of the Merseyside table-toppers and with their season form distinctly un City-like, it is looking more and more unlikely that they will be able to complete their bid for three in a row.
However, while everyone looked on City's stumble as the defining moment of the season, we neglected to show the deserved attention towards the side that had quietly moved into second place in the table, and the now genuine challengers to Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City side.
Eight points off the Merseysiders, the midlands club have slowly and effectively gone about their business ticking off the victories, only losing to Manchester United and the side just above them in the table, rather unluckily in both cases.
A reinvigorated Jamie Vardy is burning up the goal-scoring charts and already looks a sure bet for the golden boot come the end of the season. Add in the performances of Wes Morgan, James Madidson, Kelechi Iheanacho, and you have the makings of a momentum that we have not seen since their miracle run to the title in 2016.
Rodgers’ contribution to the side’s transformation from mid-table mediocrity to genuine contenders cannot be denied. Technically sound as always, the Antrim native has a man-management style, not unlike Jurgen Klopp’s that centres attention on getting the most out of the individual.
They also though have the significant advantage of not playing European football, effectively freeing them to concentrate on their challenge and allowing them the recovery time denied the other sides around them. In contrast, Liverpool will become the first Premier League side ever to play in five different tournaments, across two continents, in the space of a month.
While Liverpool have been hoovering up the attention this season, and rightly so for their form. The club’s size and tradition tends to distract from the fact that the majority of the current squad were not even a twinkle in their fathers’ eye the last time the club won England’s top-flight title. And it must be remembered, the club also has the disadvantage of not having any experience of winning the Premier League crown. Something Leicester, miniature status aside, do have. The advantage of knowing how to complete a title run-in, something Liverpool’s players, other than James Milner, have still to accomplish, should not be trivialised.
While Liverpool are still on their astounding run of favourable results, beaten only once in one and a half seasons. There is still the nagging memory, or should I say nightmare, for the club and it’s fans of the 2013-14 and 2018-19 seasons when they came agonisingly close only to be denied at the final hurdle.
Last season, despite losing only once, saw Liverpool squander a nine-point lead at Christmas when they stumbled to a series of frustrating draws to West Ham, Man United, Leicester, and Everton, while Man City went on a winning spree that saw them claim full points and the title in their final 14 fixtures. The advantage this time for Klopp and his players will be that they are unlikely to take their eight-point lead for granted this season when they know how they blew a nine-point lead last season.
While Leicester are not as imperious as Man City in their prime, under Rogers they have plenty motivation and experience to close the gap, should a tiring Liverpool slip-up between now and New Year’s Day. And of course, it would be the ultimate irony should Rogers, the man who went so close in that ’13-’14 season for Liverpool, come back and deny his former employer the Premier League destiny they so crave.
Despite Liverpool remaining unbeaten now for 33 Premier League games, many of their fans will admit that the side has not played that well this season, in comparison to some of the swashbuckling performances of last year. The side has only managed to secure two clean sheets in the league so far this season, and 2-1 has been their most common margin of victory, seven of the 16 league matches they’ve played so far this season.
Still, they have managed to dig out the wins even while looking ropey, which is always a good sign, and in recent matches, they have started to show some of their former flair and even a couple of clean sheets.
The exciting thing for Liverpool is the positive impact of their returning players, as Klopp rotates his players due to injuries and fixtures. Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri scored against Everton. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keith scored against Bournemouth, and Keita again found the target against Salzburg on Tuesday. It looks to have improved morale and rejuvenated the regulars for the tests ahead and almost feels like the side have made a bunch of new signings.
Tuesday night’s match, while unfortunately requiring a full-strength team performance to qualify for the knockout rounds, was accomplished with a degree of mature assurance against an exciting and talented Austrian side. They can now consign the Champions League to bed until February and devote their full interest to the mix of Premier League, Carabao Cup, FA Cup, and Club World Cup fixtures over the coming weeks.
The Carabao Cup will see the youngsters and Cork’s Caoimhín Kelleher return to take on Aston Villa, while it remains to be seen how serious the side will take the Club World Cup in Qatar. They will probably want to win it now that they are in it, but all the while, the Boxing Day fixture against Leicester, in the King Power Stadium, will be looming large in Liverpool minds, and the knowledge that if they win that, they have a straight dash to the finish line to fulfil the club, the players, and most importantly the fans’ dream of reaching the Reds’ Holy Grail.