Even now, after seven successive Premier League wins, the overwhelming impression remains that Liverpool will fall at the last.
But the title is within them. Being in possession of two players who have hit 20 league goals each in a single season has not always been a guarantee of silverware in the Premier League: Peter Beardsley and Andy Cole achieved the feat for Newcastle United in 1993-94 but they wound up third, while Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard helped Chelsea clinch the trophy in 2009-10. But the presence of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, the first Liverpool pair to get 20 league goals each in 50 years, is a significant reason for Liverpool to believe.
Another is their way of playing. It is a deeply ingrained one now and the point manager Brendan Rodgers has made many times over is that a technical, possession-based approach will always serve his club well in the later stages of the season when pressure can lead other sides to play with less coherence. Calmness was the watchword once again in Rodgers’ press conference late on Wednesday night after a 2-1 victory over Sunderland at Anfield.
A Liverpool title would be more attributable to Rodgers than perhaps any other manager in the Premier League era, given the relatively limited resources he has worked with. Sturridge’s emergence as a world-class player is also attributable in no small amount to Rodgers’ powers to nurture talent.
At Swansea they liked to say that he took on “birds with broken wings,” such was his enthusiasm for improving players who seemed to be fading. Sturridge was one of them. He arrived in January last year with a swagger that seemed to border on hubris, his representatives indicating that they wanted a guarantee in his contract he would play through the middle. Rodgers soon put paid to that and when he talked publicly of how this might be the then 23-year-old’s last chance to prove he could deliver at one of the biggest clubs of all, he was speaking straight to the player. Classic Rodgers man-management. The strategy worked. Sturridge is not always in a central role, but he feels as if he is. “When I was playing as a winger at Chelsea I was overthinking it because I wasn’t used to doing it. Now I’m just playing on instinct,” he said recently.
The challenge for Chelsea and Manchester City, when they visit Anfield next month, is how to stop the pair. Rodgers underlined on Wednesday that they are individualists, rather than a partnership. “Soloists” was Rodgers’ word, though selfishness and self-interest come into their play in a way that any striker will tell you is a requirement of the role. For opposing defences, dealing with the two both following their own instincts is a more complicated proposition than handling a pair.
Finding a way of shackling Suarez and Sturridge (SAS) is a test some managers seem to be revelling in. At Southampton this month, Mauricio Pochettino tried a three-man defence and flooded the midfield because it is through smothering the supply line that defenders can best be protected against twin attackers. Liverpool were overwhelmed for half an hour, though took control and won 3-0. For Sunderland’s Gus Poyet it was a five-man defence, with two holding midfielders in front of them. Defensive coaches will tell you that you are asking for trouble if you allow either of the SAS more than a yard of space to work in as they will then be allowed to look up, take aim and score. Sturridge did precisely that when Andrea Dossena stood off him on Wednesday.
City, with their imperfect defence, have more reason to fear Anfield than Chelsea, who look like a more unbreakable force, though City’s midfield strength – so visible against Manchester United this week – could be the ruin of Liverpool’s title hopes. Worse sides than City and Chelsea have overrun the Liverpool midfield this season.
Sturridge gave thanks for his goals on Thursday: “For all that’s happening in my life; I’m thankful to God for giving me this opportunity.” But Rodgers has played his part, too. With events at Anfield likely to define their destiny, Liverpool are still very much title prospects.
How Reds duo are breaking records
Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are only the third strike partnership to each hit 20 goals in a Premier League season.
1993-94, Newcastle United:
Andy Cole (34 goals) & Peter Beardsley (21)
The pair contributed 55 goals as Newcastle were the leading scorers in their first season back in the top flight, finishing third.
Didier Drogba (29) & Frank Lampard (22)
Both enjoyed the most productive league seasons of their careers as they helped Carlo Ancelotti’s side win the Double.
Luis Suarez (28) & Daniel Sturridge (20)
Despite the Uruguayan being banned for the first five games, the pair have been the driving force behind the Reds’ unexpected title challenge.
The last Liverpool duo to reach 20 together were Roger Hunt (31) and Ian St John (21) in 1963-64 as Bill Shankly’s team won the title