Wherever Liverpool now finish - and it won’t be lower than third - Brendan Rodgers deserves praise for the progress his side has made.
Most people waited for the wheels to fall off in the season because of a lack of squad depth, a history of failure, and a poor defence, but Liverpool have just kept going.
With victory over a wretched, Tim Sherwood-managed Spurs yesterday, Liverpool went two points clear of Chelsea, and four clear of Manchester City, who have two games in hand.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Liverpool will win the league, but there’s no denying that Liverpool genuinely are in the middle of a title challenge, which is enough of a change for Rodgers to get his due as an impressive manager.
Last season, it was easy to ignore his mangling of English while his team didn’t seem to promise any amazing progress. Now, obviously, it is clear that Rodgers knew what he was doing, getting his side playing to an effective plan that an entire squad has bought into. As David Moyes has shown at Manchester United, that’s not easy to do at all.
His team play short passing at a speed that is rarely seen in the Premier League, and they open up teams with an intelligence not really seen at many other clubs at all.
Daniel Sturridge has become one of the best strikers in the league, when before that he just seemed like he would be a typical English player - arrogant and unable or unwilling to progress. It appears that along with Philippe Coutinho, Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, Rodgers is able to work the transfer market to not just get value for money, but to improve the young players he buys at relatively low prices.
It’s not just the younger players that Rodgers has done well with.
Steven Gerrard has adjusted relatively well to sitting deep, which was not obviously going to be a success due to the general lack of intelligence with which he previously played. That’s not to say he wasn’t a very able or effective, and sometimes brilliant player - he was - it’s just that his English approach to the game, with lots of running and long range shots and passes suggested that a nuanced approach to football was beyond him. Not under Rodgers.
The manager has, though, made some errors this season.
With Iago Aspas, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho and possibly Mamadou Sakho, he has bought or loaned some players who simply don’t challenge other first-team players to raise their game. They get game time simply by virtue of the squad being thin.
Rodgers has been lucky that Liverpool’s squad has not been blighted by injuries, and clever enough to tilt the team’s focus away from an iffy defence towards an excellent attack of Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Sturridge and Coutinho.
The biggest challenges for the side are still to come. If you assume that Chelsea, Liverpool and City will likely win the rest of the games this season, there remain a couple which will decide where the Premier League trophy ends up.
Liverpool play Manchester City on the 13th April, and Chelsea on the 27th April. Both these matches give Liverpool home advantage. City and Chelsea are the only other sides in the league who could claim to be better sides than Liverpool, but it’s not guaranteed that the away sides will win.
Both Chelsea and City have had to deal with the distraction and exhaustion generated by European competition, and both of them have shown that they are more than capable of dropping silly points away from home. That is clear from Chelsea’s defeat to Crystal Palace at the weekend. But Jose Mourinho should never be underrated, and City have billions of pounds freshly invested to carry them on, especially when Sergio Aguero returns.
On the balance of probabilities, City and Chelsea are still marginal favourites, but it’s just too close to call with any certainty, or with any degree of sense.
After years of waiting, of getting their act together only to pull their act apart quickly, this is Liverpool’s best chance of winning the league.
If they don’t manage it this season, they will have to regret failing to make the most of such an opportunity.
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