Towards the end of December, with Liverpool sat in first for the first time since January of 2009, it was hard for fans not to look at the table and wonder what if. Then the final two matches of 2013 happened and what if became two losses that left them closer to Everton and Tottenham in fifth and sixth than to Manchester City and Chelsea in first and second.
Despite seeing City five points ahead of them—the same gap as now exists between Liverpool and David Moyes' Manchester United in seventh—manager Brendan Rodgers believes his side still has what it takes to push back up the table and to at least get back into the title conversation over the second half of the season.
"Absolutely," was Rodgers' direct response when asked if Liverpool could still challenge for the league despite falling off the pace slightly after spending Christmas in first. "We entered into the game today, 18 games to go, nine at home, nine away, knowing seven of those nine away were against teams in the bottom half.
"That doesn't mean they are gimmes by any means—it is a very tough league—but certainly we have shown enough that we are going to be challenging and that is all we ever wanted to be. We never stated we are going to win the league, to jump from where we have been at, we just needed to be in the conversation."
Saying Liverpool needs to be in the conversation, though, is a slight raising of the bar from the targeting of the top four that was the club's main aim at the start of the season. With how tight things still are at the top of the table, it may not be an unreasonable goal—though with how close the clubs chasing Liverpool are it makes fears of slipping in the opposite direction equally valid.
With the return of Daniel Sturridge against Stoke and most of Liverpool's other injured players expected back over the next few weeks, though, Rodgers will be handed a boost in his efforts to get back into that conversation. A signing or two before the end of January wouldn't hurt, either, and the manager admits he's still looking to strengthen his squad on the transfer market.
"We've got players coming back," said Rodgers. "Sakho's back in as well—he'll be back next weekend—and the likes of Stevie and Daniel coming back is good news for us [but] we'll see what's available. There's nothing at this moment in time but we'll see how the market goes. It's something we would like to do, but only on the basis that there's the right quality there that can strengthen us."
With links to the likes of Mohamed Salah and Ivan Rakitic fading, there hasn't been much for Liverpool fans to get excited about, and Rodgers is doing his best to keep expectations low. Not knowing whether the club was actually in for any of the players they were linked to early means having to take Rodgers at his word and hoping things work out for the best regardless.
And with no European commitments, just the players returning from injury might be enough to make the difference—and getting back into the title conversation does still seem possible. Without a few reinforcements, though, a new injury or two or a few poor results could make even those old top four goals begin to seem terribly difficult.