By Chris Harris
Liverpool fans have waited a long, long time for their team to sustain a Premier League title challenge. So is this the year the Reds climb back to the summit they last scaled in 1990?
Rafa Benitez’s team have six games left and they will probably have to win them all. Anything less will surely give Manchester United – holding a one-point and one-game advantage – too much margin for error.
Tonight’s test could be the toughest of all and not just because Arsenal are the visitors. Perhaps more importantly, Steven Gerrard is sidelined. Can Liverpool tick without their talisman?
We asked Tony Barrett of the Liverpool Echo for his opinion ahead of the game. Now read on for his views on Gerrard, Liverpool’s title challenge, the majesty of Fernando Torres, the anniversary of Hillsborough and drama of Anfield ’89.
THE STORY SO FAR
“If you had asked me if Liverpool could win the title five weeks ago I would have said it was all over. When Liverpool went to Middlesbrough and were beaten 2-0 it seemed to be the day that the title dream ended. But since then Liverpool have been absolutely wonderful in the League. They won 4-0 against Blackburn with a great performance, 5-0 against Aston Villa. The one that really stands out is the 4-1 victory at Old Trafford. I don’t think anyone saw that coming, they hoped that Liverpool could go and get three points but no one really thought they could come up with a margin of victory like that – not even in their wildest dreams. But on the day Liverpool were fantastic and I think from that point onwards there has been a new belief within the squad.
“United have gone on to lose against Fulham and although they’ve won the last few games they have scraped wins; the late one against Villa when Federico Macheda scored in stoppage time and then a 2-1 at Sunderland. But while that’s been going on Liverpool have been on top, top form. There’s a feeling on Merseyside that maybe the momentum is with Liverpool. United still have the advantage but at this stage of the season all you can ask is to be in the race and they’re in that.”
SILENCING THE CRITICS
“It’s difficult to say what exactly has changed this time around. I think part of it is about Rafa Benitez’s squad rebuilding which has come on another level. There are clearly better players than there were in the past and of course there is that great spine. If you look at the players in the spine it is at least equal to what anyone else has. I think what has improved is the full-backs’ performance. Alvaro Arbeloa has had a faultless season on the right and also Fabio Aurelio and Emiliano Insua have emerged and done a wonderful job. I think that is where the real improvement has taken place. This is a real settled Liverpool team now and they’ve played together for some time – they have a good understanding, good camaraderie and an excellent team spirit.”
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
“When Liverpool have got to European Finals it has always been the case that the League has had to be sacrificed around April time; He has basically picked sides just with the European games in mind. But this time there isn’t that distraction of Europe and he’s got just one competition to aim for. Liverpool do have good form, United aren’t playing so well and the fact that United have some very big games still to come in the Champions League is going to be massive. Against Arsenal over two legs will be a real battle because Europe is now what Arsenal are aiming for. United also have to face teams fighting for their lives down at the bottom and they might just find that the weight of games could count against them in the end.”
“There’s hope that Steven Gerrard will be back for Hull at the weekend. He's had a groin problem for a couple of weeks now and it worsened slightly in training just before the Champions League game against Chelsea. He is a loss, there’s no question about that, any team in the world would miss Gerrard. Zinedine Zidane recently said he was the best player in the world and I think that’s something which a lot of Liverpool fans would concur with. The interesting thing is how well Liverpool have coped without Steven this season – they are actually unbeaten when he hasn’t played. The record is fantastic; they beat Man United at home where he only played a few minutes and they beat Real Madrid away and he came on at the very end with game won."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
“I don’t think you can overstate just how important Fernando Torres is. It’s funny, if you look at the goalscoring charts this season Nicolas Anelka’s top with 15 goals, Gerrard has got 13 and there are a couple of others around that mark but last season Torres scored over 30 goals for Liverpool. It just shows what a goalscorer he is and there aren’t many of his type around. If he stays fit for Liverpool’s last six games they’ll have a massive chance of getting the maximum haul of 18 points because he does guarantee goals. It doesn’t matter how he plays, he can be very quiet and then all of a sudden he’ll come up with a goal. It’s all different types of goals as well, he doesn’t have a trademark strike - he can score headers, left and right foot, from outside the box. In many ways he’s the complete striker."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"I was 13 years old and on the Kop that night in May 1989. It was the second year I had my season ticket. It was a very emotional occasion, it was Friday and we had played West Ham the previous Tuesday and won 5-1. As a teenager going to those sorts of games you are brought up on that success and you just don’t expect them to lose by two goals.
“My memories are really strong of that night, I remember the Arsenal players carrying bouquets of flowers which they laid in front of the Kop in memory of the 96 people that died at Hillsborough. I remember the opening goal and the Liverpool players complaining that Alan Smith hadn’t got a touch but clearly he had. I remember Michael Thomas going through on goal and thinking ‘why doesn’t Steve Nicol just bring him down?’ obviously he didn’t and the rest is history.
“I remember the ovation that Arsenal got for winning the league and it’s something that the Arsenal players really appreciated at the time. it was only fitting because if you go to Anfield needing a 2-0 win to win the league and you get that then you deserve all the credit going. It was a great night for Arsenal and I don’t think anyone at Liverpool begrudged that.”Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source