BY God, we needed that on Wednesday. Up the Spurs.
When I got in from work shortly before 8pm, my missus — who for different reasons to me carries the same detailed Liverpool FC fixture list around in her head – expected some tea together, a chat about our respective days and a bit of telly.
Not a chance, I informed her, a little too dismissively. I was even a bit annoyed that hearing me utter the words “Fuckin’ Chelsea” round the house for weeks on end – sometimes in the middle of the night – she wasn’t aware of what I was now describing as the “biggest game of the season.”
The thing is, Spurs v Chelsea in midweek was the most critical game of the season, so far, and the emphatic result in the home side’s favour has consequence aplenty. As I wrote a few months ago, there are metaphorical championship balls to be kicked in a whole host of matches for us and not all of them feature Liverpool.
Tottenham’s 2-0 victory over their London rivals hasn’t — in tabloid speak — “blown the title race wide open” but it has done much more than keep Liverpool within five points of the summit. Overnight, a one-horse race becomes a six-way scrap. Manchester United in sixth place, 10 points adrift but with Chelsea still to visit Old Trafford, aren’t out of it.
The Liverpool Reds, of course, are genuine second favourites. Manchester City still have enough quality to feature in the race and while Arsenal may flatter to deceive, they are still within touching distance.
Spurs, jumping into third place, just two points behind Liverpool, suddenly look a genuine force. Consecutive 4-1 away wins at Southampton and Watford reminded everyone of last season’s Tottenham challenge, even before Wednesday’s Dele Alli-inspired win at White Hart Lane. What struck me watching them, apart from the obvious quality and similarity of two goals both fashioned by Christian Eriksen, is what a massive gang of lads they are.
Mauricio Pochettino’s methods are similar to those of our own Jürgen Klopp, but Tottenham’s high-octane pressing game is deployed by lads with the stature of upmarket nightclub bouncers, whereas the Reds’ practitioners are more of the Artful Dodger, pickpocket type. Nevertheless, Spurs are highly impressive, have last year’s bitter experience to inform and drive them, and now represent a threat hitherto unconsidered on our title radar.
Chelsea’s points tally remains the prime target and focus, but not so long ago it was Manchester City who worried us most. For a while, there was a small concern the much-maligned Arsene Wenger had finally been proactive in addressing Arsenal’s traditional fragility and now, Jose Mourinho’s track record and United’s recent winning streak is that annoyingly elusive bluebottle that keeps landing on your telly.
The point is that it’s a long season; one which ebbs and flows, twists and turns. Cold-hearted bookmakers’ odds stretch and shorten like an elastic band, while hot-headed supporters rejoice and despair from week to week. However, there are literally months to go; still so many points to play for.
Alex Ferguson’s, annoyingly apt but fetid reference to “squeaky bum time” describes a springtime pursuit, once the mid-winter jostling is done. We’re in the midst of all that now, and even I need reminding it’s early days when caught up in the unrelenting emotion of what is a fantastic Premier League season.
After our devastating concession of a second penalty equalizer to lowly Sunderland on Monday, I tweeted: “Feels like a fatal blow” — an instinctive knee-jerk reaction which was kindly picked up by the Liverpool Echo and re-published for ridicule from a world wider than my Liverpool FC Twitter community.
In that moment, there was an element of wanting all fellow Reds to soothe and/or share my pain, but by Wednesday night I was bang up for the prospect of Spurs potentially reigning Chelsea back in.
The precursor to such renewed optimism was recalling that Liverpool trailed Everton by eight points after an Anfield Derby loss in late February 1986.
The Blues didn’t do much wrong from there on in, but still lost out to a Liverpool side finishing like a train. If bums on both sides were a bit squeaky on the run-in, Kenny Dalglish’s Reds had better quality bog paper.
Back then, I also had Liverpool written off – with 13 games to play, compared with this year’s 18 remaining fixtures – before being proved exultantly wrong in May.
As long as the manager and players retain their professional faith and focus, it’s actually alright for fans to ride the emotional wave and lose our equilibrium from time to time.
We shall not be moved one week; here we go again the next. Honestly, it’s sound.
That there are six possible title contenders in 2017, with Champions League places available to only four, suits Liverpool. Not only is it good for the league, but surely Chelsea and Antonio Conte feel more pressure under pursuit of the pack than from a lone wolf.
And, the nature of this league with points relentlessly gathered by a stellar cast of trackers makes leading from the front a mentally arduous exercise. A record 13 consecutive wins would normally see a team almost home and hosed; but not this year.
As Klopp stated publicly, in his first obvious foray into the arena of title “mind games”, for Chelsea to gather a maximum straight 39 points and enjoy a gap of just five to Liverpool at this stage probably surfaces West London emotions more taxing than frustration. Fear might be one such sentiment, especially if the Reds and the rest can consistently nibble away at that lead.
With attention switching this weekend to the FA Cup and a mini winter break from Premier League action, there is time to dwell and reflect on the season so far. Liverpool, though, will be keen to use the Plymouth Argyle tie, and the upcoming two-legged League Cup semi-final against Southampton to keep winning fires burning.
Success breeds success and trophies are there for the winning. Travelling back once more to the spring of 1986, it was Liverpool’s remaining interest and passion for winning a prestigious first FA Cup in 12 years that reignited doused embers of the league title pursuit.
Klopp’s momentum-driven selection policy has restricted playing time for his supporting cast; a raft of important fringe players who might yet feature crucially in the league campaign. This weekend’s cup tie and next week’s first leg trip to St Mary’s will offer a chance for some good, important lads to stake a renewed first-team claim.
It has gone against the grain in this piece to mention Ferguson’s mind games and squeaky bum time, but who is to say that young FA Cup starlet Ben Woodburn won’t become Klopp’s Federico Macheda, come the final title reckoning. Now, there’s a thought.
Between then and now, there are still a load of twists and turns to take; especially as the FA Cup, which has a mind and magic all of its own, weaves its own thread into this season’s rich tapestry. There will come a time to keep our heads while all around are losing theirs, but there’s no sign of it yet and we should live with that a little longer.