Liverpool fans are entitled to be excited as the season enters its final furlongs. Their team has passed just about every test so far. Manchester City’s spark seems to have faded a tad, their matches having lulled into a tedium wrought from Pep Guardiola’s overbearing desire for control. Liverpool, though, are living in the moment.
Late Liverpool wins against Fulham, Tottenham and Southampton have served to heighten the spirits and expectation. Social media crackles with words like “belief” and “destiny”. We are past the point of return; whatever happens now, Liverpool failing to win a first Premier League title would be a disappointment that no level of post-rationalisation would be able to cure.
And that emotion is familiar. Too familiar. What befell a similarly expectant Liverpool team five years ago this month still hangs over the club. Sunday’s opponents, Chelsea, embody the moment the dream turned into disaster and pockmarked the career of one of the club’s greatest.
Steven Gerrard’s slip for Demba Ba’s opening goal is one of those moments that echoes down the ages, a meme for hubris gone pitifully and pitiably awry. In the stadium itself that sunny Sunday afternoon, it was greeted by a resounding, pained silence, bar from the jeers from the Chelsea fans in Anfield’s Kemlyn Road stand.
Liverpool, and Gerrard, had fallen victim to one of football’s greatest acts of trolling. An unshaven, tracksuited Jose Mourinho celebrated in yah-boo style at the final whistle, but his goading barely registered by that point. A portentous gloom had descended. Anyone travelling through Liverpool that night felt the sense of emotional deflation, fans sipping at beers in quiet desperation in the pubs, the songs of a few hours before taken off shuffle mode. Silence had taken over.
And they had been ripe for it. So much about Liverpool at that moment was gripped by an overexcitement that was there to be pricked.
Home games began over two hours before kick-off with the ticker-tape, pyro party that greeted the team coach.
Manager Brendan Rodgers had turned himself into a folksy warrior poet, a man who would “give his life for this city” and had his team playing a handbrakes-off style of football that was too reckless to prevail. And leaned heavily on Luis Suarez, with the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling as his foils.
Then there was Gerrard. Rodgers, a manager with a keen sense of internal politics, has always been keen to forge strong relationships with senior players. He is currently doing the same at Leicester with Jamie Vardy, just as he did with Scott Brown at Celtic.
Nobody, save perhaps for Jamie Carragher, ever gave more in the lost cause of Liverpool trying to win the Premier League. But by the 2013-14 season, Gerrard’s elemental force had faded. Three years earlier, he had almost had to retire due to a groin infection and was never quite the same again. The young buck of Istanbul 2005 was there within him, but could not control a match in that manner.
And so Rodgers had, and carefully, adapted his captain into the novel position of quarterback. For a while, starting from a 5-1 February thrashing of Arsenal through an 11-game winning streak, it was a huge success. Gerrard sat deep, rarely ventured forward, prompted and probed, giving Suarez and his fellow fliers their head.
Fatefully, Gerrard was often the deepest player in the Liverpool team. When Mamadou Sakho’s short pass came just before half-time, he lost his footing, and could only panic as Ba steamed away from him, and, though this is often forgotten, finished neatly. Ba had shown a composure lacking from everyone associated with Liverpool that day.
Mourinho, whose dishevelled appearance was a result of hauling himself from his sick bed, such that one wild rumour on Merseyside had it that he would not even be showing up for the game, had got into their heads. A team featuring debutant Tomas Kalas at centre-back, 41-year-old reserve goalie Mark Schwarzer, and misfit signing Mohamed Salah looked a line-up set up to lose ahead of the Champions League semi-final with Atletico Madrid set to be played in the coming midweek. And then they began on a go-slow, taking an age over every set-piece and throw-in.
Schwarzer’s goal-kicks, and the length of time he was taking over them, had Liverpool fans in the stands baying in revulsion and outrage. What had appeared to be forgotten was that a draw would actually keep the title in Liverpool’s hands, and Manchester City at bay. But Mourinho had made them forget themselves. Liverpool had become used to fast starts, and winning games in a blaze of pyrotechnics. Losing that sting proved key to their losing the match, and their dreams with it. Once disaster had befallen him, Gerrard, unable to resist his instincts, piled forward through the second half, and rained in shot after shot, until to complete the final insult, Fernando Torres made it 2-0 at the end by setting up Willian.
“They parked two buses, rather than one,” Rodgers said afterwards.
The idealistic son of Shankly had been nobbled by someone of greater nous and cynicism, and Liverpool’s title challenge expired after a perhaps even more harrowing evening when drawing 3-3 at Crystal Palace. Within 18 months, Rodgers was gone from Liverpool and so would be Gerrard.
For the last five years, it has felt like Liverpool’s best chance disappeared on the centre-circle divot Gerrard tripped over, but now Jurgen Klopp has engineered his team into a similar position, though a far less secure one – Liverpool entered the Chelsea game in 2014 six points ahead of City.
Even with players like Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and the Liverpool issue of Salah, there is not the giddy excitement of Rodgers’ team, there is no peak-era Suarez or Sterling on a teenage rampage. The foundations, though, are far more solid. Virgil van Dijk’s superiority over the likes of Martin Skrtel and Sakho borders on infinite, and Klopp is not having to hold his team together with the sticking plaster of a faded veteran playing in an unfamiliar position.
And in terms of Chelsea in 2019 as opposed to 2014, they face a completely different proposition, an opponent of far less potential malevolence.
Maurizio Sarri is the idealist, someone who wants his team to play the same way, be it against just about any other opposition. For someone who worked so long in Serie A, he is noticeably short on cynicism, while Klopp has become far more the pragmatist as this season has rolled on and the possibility of a title has become a definite reality.
This Liverpool team is not a runaway train that can be thrown off course so easily, as recent weeks have proved. Of the players who suffered that fate five years ago, only goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, now a reserve, remains. Jordan Henderson, suspended after a sending-off a fortnight previously against City, was watching on in horror from the stands.
The changes in Liverpool as a club and team since then have been huge but the shadows of the past still loom large. Perhaps Sunday might bury the ghost of Gerrard’s slip and Mourinho the bogeyman before Liverpool can take the ultimate step towards their destiny.