It's been a surprising season in many ways for Liverpool, who started the campaign with an outside shot at European qualification and now sit in second--albeit level on points with Arsenal and two ahead of Manchester City, who have two games in hand--with ten matches left to play. Few could have predicted that Liverpool would be top of the table at any point beyond the season's first few matches, hopes of Champions League qualification have given way to talk of a title-challenge with two months left to go. That's nauseating.
Mostly unexpected but certainly welcomed, and with the weekend off, it's worth a look back at the first 28 matches to go along with a look-ahead tomorrow at what's coming.
Two matches in August and two 1-0 wins, both down to goalscoring heroics from Daniel Sturridge and crucial saves late in the match by Simon Mignolet. Asmir Begovic was terrific for Stoke on the season's opening day but couldn't keep Sturridge's 37th minute drive out, and Mignolet's late double-save--the first of which came on a Jonathan Walters penalty--secured the points and immediately changed the narrative. More of the same at Villa Park, when Sturridge secured a first-half lead and Mignolet denied Christian Benteke to give Liverpool a perfect start in their first two matches.
It only got better on the first day of September, when Liverpool dominated Manchester United from wire to wire, making Sturridge's fourth-minute header stand up for another three points and another 1-0 victory. Brendan Rodgers' squad would go winless in their next two, drawing 2-2 at Swansea in an underwhelming performance and largely getting dominated at home to Souhampton the next time out, suffering their only home loss of the season. The return of Luis Suarez at Sunderland saw a return to winning ways, with Sturridge turning provider for the Uruguayan's brace and bagging one of his own as Liverpool won 3-1.
The next two matches saw Suarez start to hit his peak; the lone loss came in a disappointing display at Arsenal on November 2, but through October Suarez scored four goals in three matches, with a hat-trick against West Brom highlighted by a stunning header from just outside the penalty area. He again linked up with Sturridge in the 2-2 draw at Newcastle, which saw Liverpool struggle to find a winner despite playing with a man advantage for an hour.
Losing 2-0 at the Emirates was the low to this point, but Rodgers' squad rebounded well against Fulham, easing to a 4-0 rout before traveling across Stanley Park for the Merseyside derby. A contender for match of the season, the derby ended in a 3-3 draw and a host of talking points. Kevin Mirallas' tackle, the free-kick by Suarez, horrible defense by everyone not named Simon Mignolet, a brace for Romelu Lukaku, and, finally, a late header from Sturridge the substitute to leave the points shared.
With seven matches in the month, December was always going to be the most challenging, and it started in the worst manner possible. The loss at Hull still stands as the worst performance of the season, as a completely lifeless Liverpool had no response aside from Steven Gerrard's well-placed free-kick. Both Victor Moses and Raheem Sterling came in for criticism, and while it spelled an end to the former's Liverpool prospects, the latter's response has been stunning.
Wins--and goals--flooded in over the next four matches. Five against Norwich (with that Luis Suarez hat-trick), four against West Ham, five at Spurs, and three more at Anfield to sweep Cardiff aside, and all of a sudden Liverpool were top of the table at Christmas. Top. Of. The. Table. At. Christmas. It would be short-lived, however, as two hard-fought losses at City and Chelsea closed out 2013, and despite the largely encouraging manner in which the losses arrived, Liverpool were left to play catch-up in their efforts to finish in the top four.
And while it wasn't always pretty, January saw Liverpool catch up and then some. The 2-0 victory over Hull was followed by a bonkers 5-3 win at Stoke, which ushered in the return of Sturridge from injury and exorcised Liverpool's Britannia Stadium demons, and hopes were high as they returned to Anfield to host Aston Villa. An abhorrent first-half display meant the eventual 2-2 draw was probably more than they deserved.
Concerns thus lingered as Everton visited for the derby on January 28, especially as Brendan Rodgers persisted with Gerrard as his holding midfielder. Then those concerns were obliterated in a stunning 4-0 victory, with Liverpool completely dominant in earning their biggest derby win in decades. It was the dawn of a different Liverpool, one that was content to concede possession and then completely blow their opponents away on the counter, and things were once again looking good as February approached.
Until they weren't. The 1-1 draw at West Brom represented something of a regression at the worst possible time; Arsenal were set for Anfield the following weekend, and would arrive on top of the table. Once again, concerns reigned, and once again, concerns proved laughable. There is no hyperbole when it comes to the first twenty minutes Liverpool produced that night, which saw them take a 4-0 lead that realistically could have been six. Few performances have been as utterly destructive in the Premier League.
Three league wins have followed since then, each impressive in their own right. Liverpool had to scrape for the 3-2 victory at Craven Cottage, sealed with a 90th-minute Gerrard penalty, and the narrow 4-3 win over Swansea that would follow. And what looked to be the most difficult of the three fixtures proved to be Liverpool's most comfortable, as they weathered a strong first half by Southampton to get a 3-0 win, with Luis Suarez getting back to goalscoring ways and Raheem Sterling scoring with his first touch after coming on as a substitute.
There's plenty left to do, of course, and tomorrow we'll take a look at the rest of the calendar, which hopefully promises as many twists and turns--in a good way, please--as the first 28 matches did.