A thrilling 3-2 win at home to Tottenham meant a lot more than three points to Liverpool. Numerous factors fleshed out the notion that they have found their feet in a season that once seemed forlorn and without hope.
The FA Cup match at Crystal Palace on Saturday comes at a time when the Reds can look back to their last visit to Selhurst Park — a shabby 3-1 league loss in November — and feel that last season’s breathtaking title challenge was no fluke.
It has caught many people unawares, but since that day Liverpool’s league record is impressive. Played 13, Won 8, Drawn 4 and Lost 1. That 28 points multiplied up to a full season almost equals last season’s 84-point tally.
Outsiders can call it clutching at straws all they wish but given the difficulties that were widely predicted because of the loss of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge’s long injury layoff and the accommodation of so many new players it’s a miracle Liverpool are anywhere near the top four at all.
Manager Brendan Rodgers can be proud of this improvement. Flash back to last April and Chelsea revved up their previously parked bus and drove out of Anfield with three points and Liverpool’s title chances as well. Rodgers was furious and adamant he would never play in such a way.
Supporters understood the frustration since they felt it so keenly themselves, but weren’t confident the manager could take note of the lesson he’d been handed. That, whatever the outcome of the rest of this season, can be put to bed. Rodgers has learned his lesson and learned it well.
Napoleon once said “I know he’s a good general — but is he lucky?” That might be a strange question to ask of Liverpool’s manager at a time when Lucas Leiva is injured for six weeks and Raheem Sterling has finally buckled under the strain of all the matches he’s had to play.
It was clear against Tottenham that Steven Gerrard was also starting to feel the pinch. A full 90 minutes against Bolton, a further 90 against Everton and another hour against Spurs in less than a week was obviously too much. Alberto Moreno and Mamadou Sakho were looking slightly ragged too.
This wasn’t bad luck so much as the inevitable end product of Rodgers’ formation. The more successful it was, the more obvious his reliance upon the same personnel. When you’ve had to play 22 matches in 81 days — virtually two games per week for nearly three months — with more to come then tweaks, strains and breakdowns cannot be avoided.
It wasn’t luck though that saw Emre Can put back into defence, nor the policy of using wing-backs which led to a more fruitful use of Lazar Markovic and Moreno. All three players barely looked the part before that change.
When Markovic began to tire and lost his attacking edge Rodgers selected Jordon Ibe. So what if it was for a Merseyside derby? The man who changed an entire formation just before a visit to Manchester United isn’t going to be fazed by that.
Not only did Ibe perform well in two difficult matches, he’s afforded his manager a chance to see Markovic in one of the attacking roles he was bought for. It’s fair to say he looked more like the Benfica star everybody was expecting last summer.
Philippe Coutinho may be the next attacking midfielder to feel the strain of an unforgiving workload, so Markovic’s performance meant more good news for Rodgers.
With Gerrard feeling the pace, Rodgers took another risk by removing Can from his defensive role. Clearly the cost of signing Dejan Lovren means he was never to be entirely abandoned but Glen Johnson replacing the injured Sakho in the recent Chelsea semifinal did not look good for the Croatian.
He got his chance in the final stages against Spurs and without looking great was at least part of a rear-guard action that held out for a massive victory. Perhaps bringing him back into a team brimming with confidence, rather than the wreckage he was expected to hold together back in the autumn, can rescue what had seemed a stalled Liverpool career.
Can moved further forward and instantly looked as comfortable in midfield as he has in defence. The long-term loss of Lucas had seemed problematic, less so now.
And then there’s Mario Balotelli. He appeared slightly crestfallen that he was replacing Sturridge and not partnering him for those final 20 minutes. After all, that hour together at White Hart Lane in September was the only time Mario ever looked the part as a Liverpool striker.
There are a number of current players written off as poor buys who have subsequently performed admirably to mock such premature judgement. It hardly needs saying that Balotelli would be the biggest Lazarus of them all. As with Lovren, a slow reintroduction into a team that’s found its way again may be the best thing that could happen to him.
The winner against Spurs is one swallow that does not make a summer. Ibe and Adam Lallana combined well to create it but Mario got into the right position and finished perfectly. That has not been evident all season. Strikers need to be confident and need to be loved. Scoring the winner against fierce rivals for a top-four spot won’t hurt.
Sturridge looked good for most of his 70 minutes on the pitch but five months of inactivity isn’t going to be erased overnight. He distracted Spurs enough to allow Markovic to run through for the first goal, won the penalty and that outrageous back-heel against the post deserved a goal for sheer cheek alone. They were hopeful signs of an eventual return to his best, but if Balotelli can also contribute, then both Sterling and Sturridge don’t have to play every match and risk further injury.
It is impressive that every time an obstacle is placed in Rodgers’ way someone always seems to emerge to help him overcome it.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and writes a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Twitter: @goat_boy_1959.