Gerard Houllier, having defied medical advice by returning to work so soon after life-saving heart surgery, looked out at a sea of watching media and uttered a phrase that was to come back to haunt him.
“Hopefully we are 10 games from greatness,” said the Frenchman in his first press conference since his return. He was wrong.
The then Reds manager was speaking before the Champions League quarterfinal tie against Bayer Leverkusen in April of 2002 (BBC), with his team sitting on top of the Premier League with five games to go―a point clear of an Arsenal side who had a crucial game in hand. Liverpool lost that quarterfinal against a Leverkusen team featuring Michael Ballack and Dimitar Berbatov 4-3 on aggregate, while Arsenal beat them into second place in the Premier League, eventually winning the title by seven points.
As a result, proclamations of potential greatness have always been avoided around Anfield ever since―not that there have been many opportunities to for them to be uttered in the past few years, of course―but the current Reds hierarchy might just be counting down the games in this current season and wondering where the club will be at the end of them.
While there are still Europa League commitments to consider, of course, it is the 13 games that separate Liverpool from now and the end of the Premier League season that surely deserve the most attention.
The recent back-to-back draws at Arsenal and Manchester City didn’t just demonstrate that the Reds are as close as they have ever been to becoming a fearsome force under Brendan Rodgers, but they also signified the last of the fixtures that they really need to fear in their league campaign.
They will face Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton in the months ahead, but all of those games come at Anfield, where Liverpool will back themselves to beat anyone. Away trips to Wigan, Southampton, Aston Villa, Reading, Newcastle and Fulham all come with their potential dangers and warnings, but they don’t represent anything that Rodgers and his charges should be overly scared of.
These 13 games all offer the opportunity for Liverpool to get as close to the top teams as possible, and while the head start given to others may still make reaching the top four an impossible goal, the manner that the Reds approach their late-season search for points will determine just how their campaign will be interpreted.
Go for it, impress and pick up in the region of 30 points from these 39 available, and the Reds will have created a feel-good factor that can be taken into the summer and hopefully beyond. Throw in the added emotional factor that comes with the club wanting to "win for Jamie Carragher" before the defender's retirement, and the squad should be dripping with confidence.
That optimism will only be added to should newly signed Daniel Sturridge continue to impress in these weeks ahead, while fellow new boy Philippe Coutinho arrives with the opportunity to quickly make his mark on the English game in less intimidating surroundings than might have been. That freshness will enthral as well as excite heading into the new season.
But, fail in the challenge to pick up an impressive haul of points, and it’ll be negativity that will rule, especially given the somewhat kind run-in that the Reds have been handed.
Liverpool won’t finish in the European places should the outcome of these matches―which start at home to West Brom on Monday―be of a disappointment to them, but they might not even finish in them if they impress either, such is the tight nature of the table and the capacity for the top teams to dig out results when it really matters.
What these 13 matches do offer is a chance for Liverpool to showcase just what could be seen from them in the next season and beyond, and it is that which should be getting supporters excited.
Rodgers shouldn’t need to borrow a few phrases from the Houllier handbook to achieve that excitement, either, and fans should be pretty glad of that, too.