Liverpool have been flying high since the new year, with their only defeat coming against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup semi-final. Since that demoralizing three-nil loss to Manchester United, they've gone nine games unbeaten in the league. While some of those games, specifically Leicester and Everton, were disappointing draws, others were resounding and much-needed victories.
Additionally, Daniel Sturridge is back on the pitch and had his first start in the game against Tottenham. While he doesn't look as sharp as we're used to, having him in the team has greatly increased the dynamism and fluidity of the attack. Jordon Ibe performed well in the last two games, with excellent pace and movement that will undoubtedly lead to goals in the future. And speaking of goals, even Mario Balotelli has been able to get in on the action, netting a crucial one on Tuesday.
Liverpool are on the top of the form table and only three points off of the coveted top four. Of course, getting there will still require three of the six teams above them to falter. In the past week and a half, they've leapfrogged West Ham, reduced the gap with Spurs from four points to one, and the next game in the league is against Southampton, who are currently ahead of Liverpool by four points. While Southampton's form over the course of the season has shocked and impressed fans and pundits alike, most have been waiting for them to drop off at some point as the merciless grind of a long and taxing campaign takes its toll. After defeat to Swansea and a draw with West Ham this month, that time may have arrived. Southampton seem the team most likely to slip from their top four spot, and Liverpool need to capitalize on that weakness if they are to have any hope of snagging a Champion's League place.
With Liverpool finally doing the business on the pitch, the league has become more intriguing than it has been since last May.
It's frustrating then, momentum being what it is, that between now and that crucial clash against Southampton are two tricky cup games. First up is the FA Cup 5th Round game against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, a place not full of the happiest memories for Liverpool, considering the last game they played there literally reduced Luis Suarez (and I) to tears.
Thanks to being cup-tied, Jordon Ibe cannot feature in that competition, which is a shame, because that would have been a good way to get him some more game time to continue building his confidence. Add to that the injuries to Lucas Leiva and potentially Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, and rotation will be limited. Given how important the upcoming league games are, should focus be on this competition?
In the last round, many top Premier League clubs were eliminated in a Magic of the CupTM day. Man United and Arsenal are the only two teams above Liverpool in the league who still in the running, so the road to Wembley is as open as it's ever been. And of course much has been made of the final taking place on Steven Gerrard's birthday, and of the team winning one last trophy before he heads off to sunny California.
Ultimately, though, while every team wants silverware, and giving Stevie the farewell he deserves sounds good, how much of Liverpool's valuable (and finite) resources should be spent on that goal? Winning the Carling Cup and making it to the FA Cup final while coming in eighth place cost Kenny Dalglish his job. And while I don't think anything short of a total collapse would see Liverpool sack Rodgers -- and rightly so -- that doesn't change the fact that the owners have made it abundantly clear that their focus lies in becoming a consistent top four team.
After the Crystal Palace clash, Liverpool face Besiktas, the Turkish Super Lig leaders, at Anfield. Many still tout Europa League victory as Liverpool's only chance to get back into the Champion's League next season. However, a competition which contains teams such as Roma, Napoli, Ajax, Sevilla and Villarreal will be no easy walk-through, while also requiring nine additional games and extensive traveling tacked onto Liverpool's already tight schedule to secure victory. At this point, given Liverpool's current league form, the statistically low chance of sneaking into the top four seems like the easier option.
But as fans, we love experiencing important games, and breaking into the quarterfinals and beyond in either of these competitions would no doubt provide us with some amazing nights. Winning trophies is always something any good team should strive for, and while the FA Cup and Europa League lack the sexiness of a league title or Champion's League victory, they're still sought-after awards, and as a fan, I'd be proud to win either one.
The question, as ever, is how Brendan Rodgers plans to use the resources available to him. How many games in a row could the seemingly inexhaustible Jordan Henderson, Emre Can or Martin Skrtel play? Will we see Can pushed up into a more attacking role due to Steven Gerrard's hamstring injury? And if so, does Kolo Toure fill that space in defense? Does Dejan Lovren? Does Glen Johnson?
The rest of February will be fascinating for fans as we see where the manager's priorities lie, how well our young and newly integrated players progress and whether the team can maintain their excellent form in the face of a tough fixture list and injuries to key players.