ONE of Sir Alex Ferguson’s avowed aims during his long reign as Manchester United manager was, famously, “to knock Liverpool off their perch” as the most successful club side in England.
When he took over at Old Trafford in November 1986, Liverpool had won the title 16 times while United had won it on seven occasions, with the last of those successes coming in 1967.
By the time Ferguson retired at the end of last season, Manchester United had won two more titles than Liverpool’s 18 but in an almost ironic twist, as soon as Ferguson left the stage, Liverpool are poised to steal in and claim a first league crown since 1990.
Their emphatic 4-0 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday left the Anfield crowd singing “we’re gonna win the league” with real belief, and manager Brendan Rodgers can take his team into the final six matches with their destiny firmly in their own hands.
The victory moved Liverpool to 71 points, two ahead of Chelsea, who have played the same number of matches, and four clear of a Manchester City side that have eight fixtures remaining.
Getting over the line will not be easy but if Liverpool can stretch their current eight-match winning streak to 14, including home games against Manchester City and Chelsea, they will end their 24-year wait for a 19th title.
Only one team has ever won 14 successive top-flight matches – Arsenal in 2002 – which is perhaps why Rodgers, who has been playing down their chances all season, walked into his news conference following the Spurs match and, unprompted, said: “No, we can’t!” before anyone had even asked him if they could.
Following Chelsea’s shock 1-0 defeat by Crystal Palace on Saturday, manager Jose Mourinho said the Londoners were out of the title race and although their chances suffered a massive blow at Selhurst Park, they are still very much involved.
City also lost ground following a 1-1 draw at Arsenal, but like Liverpool, they remain the masters of their destiny.
Rodgers was asked if the pressure was building on the other title rivals more than Liverpool and he agreed that it was.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to be where we are. We finished the last two seasons eighth and seventh. I don’t think anyone expected us to be challenging,” the Northern Irishman said.
“We go into every game to win but what has been great to see has been the idea and methodology of our work bearing fruit in the game.
“But I don’t feel any pressure. I just feel a huge privilege to be here and to be given the freedom to work. I think it’s fantastic the supporters now have hope.”
That hope has been restored by a team playing some superb football evoking memories of the kind of high-speed, attacking play that was a hallmark of Liverpool’s game in the 1970s and ’80s before United did knock them off that perch.
In both of those decades, Liverpool had attacking partnerships that were largely unrivalled in their eras: John Toshack and Kevin Keegan in the 1970s, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish in the 1980s.
They now have Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge ripping defences to shreds with the tricky Uruguayan taking his tally to 29 league goals for the season, the best by a Liverpool player in a Premier League campaign.
One bonus for Liverpool was that Sunday’s contest was only their 37th game of the campaign as they have not had the distraction of any European competition.
By comparison, City have played 49 games and Chelsea 47 with Mourinho’s men taking in at least two more matches over the next two weeks against Paris St Germain in the Champions League.
Rodgers has also been able to pick from a relatively settled squad with few major injury worries in their most effective area – the attack.
Sunday’s starting line-up also boasted six English players including Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Jordan Henderson, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, all of whom are virtually assured of being named in the England squad for the World Cup finals.
Gerrard of course, the talismanic skipper, is also close to filling the one major omission from his personal trophy collection. He has twice led Liverpool to the runners-up spot in his long career yet this could be the year, at the age of 33, he finally gets his winner’s medal.
And perhaps the omens are finally on his side.
Sunday’s win over Spurs came 50 years to the day since two goals by Ian St John, who was watching from the stands, helped Liverpool to a 3-1 win over Tottenham at Anfield.
That result moved Liverpool to the top of the table and they went on to win the title for the first time under Bill Shankly and begin their quarter of a century of dominance in England.
Liverpool still have a mighty task ahead, but as Rodgers says, the fans now believe.
And on Sunday’s performance it seems the players do too.