Eleven year old Jon-Paul Gilhooley was among 96 Liverpool supporters that tragically died at Hillsborough Stadium Disaster. On the Sunday prior to the 25th anniversary of his death, his cousin Steven Gerrard will lead Liverpool FC on to Anfield with his dream of that elusive Premier League title in his own hands; in what is arguably Liverpool’s biggest game in years.
If you were to tell Steven Gerrard one year ago that Liverpool would be at the top of the table in April with Manchester City and Chelsea to visit Anfield, he might have laughed as if it were a cruel wind-up. Even the legendary Jamie Carragher admitted that he might have stayed on for one more year had he known that Liverpool would challenge for a maiden Premier League title.
Setting the tone
There are individual games, even moments that set the tone for the near and distant future. Simon Mignolet’s memorable penalty save in the season opener ensured that the Reds made a winning start for the first time in 5 years. The last time that happened, Liverpool finish 4 points short of the title. You could be forgiven for considering it to be too much of a coincidence.
The uber priority of the season may be to consolidate qualification for the UEFA Champions League, but having gone on a winning run of 9 games on the bounce, Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool almost have no choice but to go all in now that they have come so far. Liverpool supporters who have keenly followed the Reds’ season would remember the 5-1 mauling of Arsenal at Anfield as the game that began the push towards the title. Talk about setting the tone.
Liverpool vs Manchester City at Anfield could well turn out to be that kind of game.
Big game credentials put to the test
Progress has been the underlying theme throughout Brendan Rodgers tenure at Liverpool, but his Achilles Heel in 2012-13 was winning just 1 out of 10 games against the top 6 teams in entire the league. Having been given the run around by Arsenal in November, this season looked to be not much better.
Considering that Gerrard, Sturridge and Jose Enrique were all out of action at that time, the 5-0 drubbing of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane was the turning point in assessing Liverpool’s big game credentials. Going toe-to-toe with Manchester City and Chelsea away showed that against bigger teams, Liverpool were not far away from getting it right.
Going into the New Year occupying a place in the Top 4 kept Liverpool within reach of their goal of Champions League qualification, but the knowledge that Liverpool still had to entertain 5 of the other top 6 teams at home was enough to plant the seeds of doubts in the minds of critics and supporters alike. Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have since been annihilated at Anfield; showing that Liverpool are not just ‘flat-track bullies’, but also establishing Anfield as a fortress to be admired by Reds and feared by the enemy.
Manchester City will provide Liverpool the ultimate test of their ability in big games. The stakes have never been higher during Brendan Rodgers’ tenure as Liverpool manager. Moreover, Liverpool could have still bigger fish to fry (potentially even Bayern Munich, thanks to Liverpool’s UEFA coefficient) in the Champions League next season while fighting on multiple fronts – defeating Manchester City on Sunday will provide them with confidence to go toe-to-toe with the best.
Thorough examination for Brendan Rodgers
The ability of a manager to take tough decisions in high stakes fixtures separates the best from the rest.
Brendan Rodgers might be tempted to go with a diamond midfield formation to take control of central midfield, or send out a 4-3-3 with the emphasis of making the most of opportunities in the final third. Lucas’ performance as a substitute might give the manager to option of playing the Brazilian in front of the back four, or in an advance position to nullify the likes of Yaya Toure. Playing at Anfield might prompt an attack-heavy formation, either with Philippe Coutinho in the centre to thread through balls to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, or by deploying Raheem Sterling on the right to take advantage of his pace. As if that were not enough, Brendan Rodgers is facing having to choose between Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger, both of whom are match fit.
If there is one thing Brendan Rodgers has shown in abundance during his tenure as Liverpool manager (especially in 2013-14), it’s his willingness to take tough decisions whenever the situation demands it. This is a manager who dropped Daniel Sturridge to the bench for a Merseyside Derby (because he had not performed well in training), thrust Jon Flanagan back into the first team, and also had the courage to throw in a 19 year old Brad Smith in Liverpool’s left wing at the toughest away fixture in the league. Not every big decision he has made has come out right, but the calls he takes on Sunday will be judged by how Liverpool perform on the field.
Experienced players handling the pressure of a title race
A lot has been made about how Liverpool lack the necessary experience to win titles, but you don’t get that experience unless you actually go ahead and win it the first time.
Sunday’s fixture might be as big as it gets, but some of Liverpool’s squad have experience in big games themselves. Luis Suarez and Mamadou Sakho have won league titles in Holland and France respectively; while Steven Gerrard has won everything else there is in club football. Daniel Sturridge has been part of a squad that won the Champions League (albeit featuring sporadically), while Kolo Toure could prove to be a huge influence in the dressing room, being one of 6 players to win Premier League titles with two different teams. Some form of experience is better than no experience at all; and it is these players who would carry the rest of the team through the run-in.
Amongst all this, Brendan Rodgers has continued to reiterate that he is only focused on the “next game”. The uber priority of consolidating a place in the Top 4 to build upon for the future is one thing, but having gone on a winning run of 9 consecutive fixtures ever since mauling Arsenal 5-1 at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool almost have no choice but to go all in now that they have come so far.
In this regard, Brendan Rodgers has done a terrific job at ensuring that no one in the squad is getting carried away with their form. The official rhetoric may be that Champions League qualification is the priority, but there’s no doubting that it is the title that the squad is going for. He has always mentioned that Liverpool are only taking one game at a time, and not without good reason. Winning the Premier League title would mean winning 14 games in a row, but that cannot happen without crossing every hurdle whenever you arrive at it. Chelsea’s visit to Anfield could well prove to be a tougher test purely due to Jose Mourinho’s medal-winning pedigree, but will only become a title decider if Liverpool win on Sunday in the first place.
Five games left. One at a time it is, then.