Liverpool's swing from neutral's favourite for title to 'not them!' underlines their fear factor
Liverpool were the neutral's favourite to be crowned champions in 2013-14 because their chase seemed fictional - more fairytale than the return of a force. Now though, there's external realisation that this challenge is serious, solid and a sign of things to come...
On Friday, as Jürgen Klopp was peppered with questions over that game - the one where the world seemed to cave in on Liverpool with Steven Gerrard losing his footing as the Premier League title slipped from their grasp, the script shredded, destiny denied - the manager needed just 15 words to sum up why rewinding to Chelsea’s 2-0 victory at Anfield on April 27, 2014 was fatuous.
“Everything changed,” he began, adding “only the colours and names of the teams are the same, pretty much.”
By Sunday evening, if it wasn’t already crystalline that this Liverpool are so different, a piece of collective magic finished off by Sadio Mane aligned with individual artistry by Mohamed Salah added to 80 minutes of dominance, which capitalised and bolded that fact.
On the same ground, against the same opponents, with the same ambition at stake, the entire approach and aura about the Merseysiders was distinct. Chelsea did not match the time-wasting mastery of their 2014 alumni, but were invested in slowing the game down in the first half.
Organised and obstructive, they had hoped to force Liverpool into desperation mode as was the case five years earlier. The hosts kept their nerve and were patient in the build-up during the goalless first 45 minutes, before detonating after the restart.
For all the focus on that encounter in 2014, it was actually a clash against Borussia Dortmund to the day three years ago that offered a greater comparison. Then, a well-worked team move resulted in Daniel Sturridge supplying James Milner, who crossed towards the back post for Dejan Lovren to head in the winner, sending the decibel levels at Anfield into overdrive and the team into the Europa League semi-finals.
This time, as the clock struck 51, it was a glorious one-two between Salah and Roberto Firmino, before Jordan Henderson found Mane for an almost carbon copy delivery and conversion.
Again, the noise thundered around the arena and two minutes later, it escalated.
Virgil van Dijk drove a pass out to Salah on the right, which the Egyptian controlled before cutting inside and rocketing his strike past Kepa Arrizabalaga and sweetly into the top corner.
The goal - beautiful, brutal, a big fuck you to the Chelsea fans who sang a discriminatory chant about him this week and others like them plaguing the game - was extraordinary, yet was pulled off in a manner that made it look effortless.
There was no frustration and no sign of Liverpool playing the occasion, playing against that memory, playing as their own worst enemies.
Naturally, having been sliced so sharply, Chelsea changed their shape and their intention leading to a 10-minute spell of chaos in which Eden Hazard had two chances to drag them back into it: his first hitting the post before Alisson saved the next.
Liverpool resumed command of the fixture and were more dangerous, but they didn’t need to inflict further damage as they returned to the top of the table.
Everything has, as per Klopp’s assertion, changed. The shift has been nothing short of seismic and beyond the obvious elements like personnel, investment and a unified vision, perhaps the most interesting way to encapsulate it is by the alteration in national mood.
Liverpool were - which bitterly riled then-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho and his counterpart at Manchester City at the time Manuel Pellegrini - the neutral’s favourite to be crowned champions in 2013-14.
Five seasons later, the NOT THEM! brigade is bulging in membership, swathes of Manchester United fans included.
Why the swing? While there was a fictional feel to the Reds’ previous title tilt, this challenge is serious, it is sure and it is certainly not a one off. As a backroom staffer of another Premier League club noted “the sign is Liverpool under Klopp will keep coming, they will only get better.”
The Merseysiders were unexpected guests in the league trophy conversation during 2013-14 and their push felt like a happy accident rather than the result of purposeful methodology.
They were carried by emotion, choreographed by their desperation to do it and coloured by a gratefulness to be in the mix.
Liverpool had finished seventh in 2012-13 and while they were dynamite in attack the following season, powered by Luis Suarez who was wonderfully assisted by Sturridge, they were so porous at the back and ended up conceding 50. There was no platform for sustained advancement and the situation felt more like a fairytale than the return of a force.
This Liverpool, though, have built to this point and have been built for this point. From reaching the League Cup and Europa League finals in 2016 to securing back-to-back Champions League qualification, reaching the climax of the tournament last May to now trading blows with City for the crown they most crave, the club’s upward curve has been obvious.
In this campaign, they have displayed a variety of ways to win - the blitz, the war of attrition, bouncebackability - and have developed into “fucking mentality monsters” as Klopp described.
They have lost just once in the league - at City - have conceded the fewest goals and are a solitary point off their overall 2008-09 total (86), which was their best return since 87-88 (90).
It is their first time trying to win the title under Klopp and as he has repeated “100 per cent not the last.”
As the finish line nears and only one of two exceptional teams get to celebrate triumph after such a taxing contest, it is worth remembering where Liverpool were, where they are and where they can go.
“We only try to collect as many points as possible,” Klopp said in the aftermath of Sunday’s gigantic result.
“What is it now, 85? Four games to play: 97. Let’s try. And if that’s enough, then perfect. If not, we cannot change it.”
Whether 18 titles adjusts to 19 on May 12, Liverpool have already changed so much.