Steven Gerrard's face after Liverpool claimed their extraordinary 3-2 win over Manchester City on Sunday told a story. On what was an emotional day quite apart from the remarkable football match—it was the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough stadium disaster—the Liverpool captain almost burst into tears at the final whistle.
He then gave an impassioned team talk to his colleagues as they huddled in celebration.
This was the day when something changed for Liverpool. Until now, in this utterly remarkable run of form that has propelled them into the title race, there has been a sense that they could do it—that they could win the Premier League, that they could hold off Manchester City and Chelsea.
Because there has been very little expectation of Liverpool from the start of the season as a genuine title threat, that's all it has been—could. They very well could win it, but it wouldn't be a massive surprise, or indeed a massive disaster, if they didn't.
That changed on Sunday. In beating Manchester City, Liverpool went from title contenders to title favourites. Some bookmakers make them as short as 8-11 to be champions, and all have them as odds-on favourites, per OddsChecker.com.
They have four games remaining and are two points clear of Chelsea. They also sit seven ahead of City, who have two games in hand, which are against Sunderland and Aston Villa, the two closest things to guaranteed wins as there are in the Premier League at the moment.
It's incredibly tight, but Liverpool have nudged ahead of their rivals not just in points, but in expectation as well.
However, this puts added pressure on Liverpool's last four games. This run of form that has seen them drop just four points in 2014 and win the last 10 games has been achieved with a freeness of play that is partly down to their astonishing attackers and Brendan Rodgers' coaching, but also surely partly influenced by the freedom that comes with a lack of real expectation.
Liverpool surely knew that if they carried this on and won the title, then it would obviously be phenomenal. But if not, then it wouldn't be a calamity, because nobody expected them to do so.
Now, they are expected to.
This will be a whole new test for Liverpool, but it's one that Rodgers thinks his team is up for. He told Sky Sports after Sunday's game:
The expectancy of this football club is a challenge every day. Our objective is to stay where we are; there is no question about that.
We've been put under pressure in every game that we've played. But you see the level and the quality of our football—it was fantastic today—so we're clearly coping with it.
This challenge is one that will be exacerbated by possible absentees in their closing games. Jordan Henderson will be suspended for three of the remaining four games after his red card against City, while Daniel Sturridge limped off before the end with a hamstring injury, the severity of which is not yet known.
Of course, they have defied predictions and logic for much of this season, so on that basis, there is no reason to believe they won't be able to do it again, but it will take a colossal effort in these last few weeks.
Their final four-game run begins against Norwich, who are in free fall but showed one or two promising signs in their narrow defeat to Fulham at the weekend. Then, it's at home to Chelsea, which will basically be their second "title decider" in a fortnight. Following that is a trip to Crystal Palace—which, as Jose Mourinho recently discovered, is always a tough place to go—before they host Newcastle on the final day.
This season, Liverpool have coped with various different sorts of pressure and have won games in a number of ways. These last four games will be a different challenge altogether, but the Reds have shown little evidence that they won't be able to cope with it.
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