The English Premier League is approaching its business end. A fortnight ago only four points separated the leaders Manchester City and fourth-placed Arsenal with Chelsea and Liverpool in the sandwich, giving all the four a possible shot at the title.
After the latest round of games and with six to go, Liverpool are at the top of the table, raising their hopes after drubbing Tottenham Hotspur and finding Jose Mourinho’s side lose to Crystal Palace and Arsenal share points with Manuel Pellegrini’s City.
One thing is certain: The race is heading to the wire with City and Chelsea in hot pursuit of Liverpool and most polls predicting Brendan Rodgers’ boys will be back as champions after 23 years. But it is going to be a test of nerves for all three contenders.
Frankly, Liverpool were seen as dark horses till last week’s topsy-turvy results and Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal as the potential champions.
But for Arsenal, who have been at the top of the table longer than anybody else, it’s turning out to be a familiar story. Their unpredictable form has sent them tumbling to fourth position. Rather than chasing the title, they find themselves embroiled in an all-too-familiar battle with Everton to secure Champions League qualification.
Chelsea lost 0-1 to relegation battling Crystal Palace while City, the initial favourites, are four points behind the leaders but with two games in hand.
Liverpool, meanwhile, are now entering dangerous territory. From being outsiders they will have to manage the burden of expectations that is ready to burst out of Anfield.
The fear of losing after coming so close to the title is something the Liverpool players must be worried about.
They haven’t had that sort of pressure all season – probably not in many a years.
If anyone had said at the beginning of the season that Liverpool would be leading with six games to go, he would have been dismissed as crazy.
However, Liverpool have proved all doubters wrong. Twenty-four years is a long, long time not to win the title they have won 18 times and the pressure of overcoming this agonising wait will be the team’s biggest challenge.
This is when the support staff and senior players in the team like long-serving captain Steven Gerrard can make all the difference by calming the younger players and pulling them away from the spotlight.
Liverpool need to take it one game at a time. They have been in a similar situation before.
In 1997 they blew a golden opportunity to leapfrog Manchester United to first place and probably the title but they cracked in the last 10 minutes of the game against Conventry City and handed their bitter rivals the league title.
Liverpool have had an exceptional run, logging 35 of the possible 39 points since the New Year and are at the cusp of ending their title drought. But it will all boil down to two very important games.
Liverpool will welcome to Anfield third placed Manchester City April 13 and then second placed Chelsea April 27.
The title is sure to be decided in the two key games and Liverpool will have to be at their best to pull it off. They have found a motivating factor, winning it for Gerrard the only club trophy missing from the world-class midfielder’s showcase.
To achieve their goal, Liverpool should be looking to win all their remaining matches. it’s not going to be easy and Gerrard knows it better than anyone else as he has spent his entire career at Anfield.
(Santosh Rao is a reporter with IANS Sports. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)