Demanding More

EVERYBODY wants a Brendan-hug.... - Alex Livesey

As the Manchester United game draws ever closer, talk of the season's potential is unavoidable. The players and the manager, however, remain 'demanding' of each other and the 'intensity' of the training has not waned, despite the gap in fixtures.

How are you holding up? I'm picturing quite a few rueful looks, a smattering of daft grins and plenty of pained winces. We all know what this next game means. Thanks to the recently sketchy form of Timmy's Tottenham and Roberto's Bluenoses, Liverpool can afford to lose against the Great Crossers of the Modern Game and still have a buffer in fourth place, but we don't want to. Dear Fowler, we don't want to. Inwardly, we know they're no threat this season -- and that gives more than a modicum of bitter pleasure to a fan base that have recoiled in revulsion at the procession of silverware headed to the wrong end of the East Lancs Road -- but there is a far bigger dream to be grasped here.

The best Liverpool fans have never bought into the small-time thinking that creates a reality in which defeating Manchester United is the highlight of the season. Indeed, when the Redmen were imperious for 20 years and making the title their own, the Mancunian side often beat them, raising their game to match the occasion. It was their match of the season. Fans of the Anfield side cared little about their joyous bleating, however, as they surveyed the lead Liverpool had amassed at the summit of the table.

Similarly, in recent years, especially under Gérard Houllier, there were a succession of smash n' grab 1-0 wins for Liverpool but they always felt hollow to me, as I surveyed the pub full of happy faces. After one such victory, I remember a thoroughly condescending Manc turning to me and insisting that it was "no problem, 'cause we don't have to worry about you lot." I was incensed. I hated that this guy thought I cared as much as the others with their expressions of blissed-out bovine satisfaction. I didn't. I wanted the real prize. I wanted that title. In the interests of not embarking on a potentially deleterious spree of violence, I haven't watched a match in the pub for well over a decade.

Clued-in, genuine United fans will know that the return leg of their Champions League tie against Olympiakos is a far more important match representing, as it does, the club's last chance at major silverware but I suspect David Moyes, the master of saucer-eyed indignation, may not concur. He will want a win on Sunday desperately. It's Liverpool, after all -- that side that ritually humiliated his Everton teams over the years. He has been mocked and derided and the patience of supporters with the chosen one is starting to wane. Make no mistake, this game is massive for Manchester United and their beleaguered manager. Should they lose, even a Europa League place may be beyond them -- beyond Manchester United. That's remarkable.

In this most atypical of seasons then, it behooves Liverpool Football club to seize the unique opportunity afforded them. It cannot only be this scribbler who has felt that the stars are very definitely aligning. The implosion at Old Trafford, the stumbles of Everton and Spurs, the early travails of Chelsea, the injury to Sergio Aguero and the angsty navel-gazing at the Emirates have all presented a truly unique opportunity to a Liverpool side who have supplied the most important part of this equation themselves with the glorious brio of their offensive play. This can be done.

Pleasingly, the noises coming from the manager and his charges are reassuringly calm and betray none of the latent excitement they must surely feel on a daily basis. Rodgers, who has himself been mightily impressive this campaign, has been gratified by the desire and hunger on display at training. There has never been any doubting the ambition of the Northern Irishman but it seems he is finding it mirrored now in his group.

"It was interesting really as we had an adaptation day after they had been off for a few days," Rodgers explained. "It was supposed to be a low intensity session, but the quality and the intensity they worked at was incredible. I actually had to take them off it a little bit. They are a very focused group. They are very keen and very ambitious for the club to do well. I see that in their work every day. They are brilliant professionals.

"We have been terrific for the last 14 months or so and the club is on a real high. That's big credit to the players and all the staff, who are working tirelessly every day. Sunday is a game we are really looking forward to. For us it's about retaining the focus. We know it's a big game but we've done well in a lot of the big games this season."

Of the players who have created this seductive opportunity, more has been spoken about the twin threat of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez than any of the others.Numbers one and two in the top flight scoring charts and in the form of their careers these two have been emblematic of the new Liverpool -- attacking, audacious, swaggering and unafraid.

The legion of body language experts, pontificating from their sofas and desperate to find a chink in Liverpool's armour, have tried to read a tension into the interactions between the two men. Liverpool fans will care little about how cosy their strikers are off the pitch, once they continue to link so devastatingly on it. Daniel Sturridge politely dismissed any talk of rifts with a delightfully utilitarian and practical response.

"I'm demanding," Sturridge said. "Stevie's demanding. Everyone's demanding. It's not just Luis that's demanding of the players. The manager's very demanding of the players. It's important that everyone's demanding if you want to be successful and everyone's pushing each other to get the best out of each other, and that's what we all try to do.

"He works tirelessly. I think we combine very well. He's someone who wants to win, and I want to win, we both enjoy to score goals, both like to assist each other. I think we've both got three assists for each other, so we look for each other and we give each other opportunities and we work as a unit. I enjoy playing with him."

This eminently sensible approach from Sturridge to all the froth surrounding the run-in, and the Old Trafford clash in particular, is like a soothing balm. The manager and players are starting to sound like old-fashioned Liverpool men. They are calm yet confident, hopeful yet realistic. They allow us to dream whilst keeping their own ambitions and hopes to themselves. This penman is relishing the current incarnation of Liverpool Football Club. There will be plenty of time for rationalising and angst-ridden analysis if it is needed. For now, we dream. This can be done. This can be done.

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