With six games to go Liverpool are in prime position for the title but Brendan Rodgers insists he will take no fixture for granted
Brendan Rodgers has been playing down Liverpool's title hopes all season, apart from the short time where he built them up and performances suffered, but as of last week the club's cover has been blown. Liverpool touched the top of the table with six games to play and, though the same could be said of Manchester City, the title is theirs to lose.
"The finish line is a long way off, there is still a lot of work to do," Rodgers said. "Some people think that with six games to go the finishing line is in sight, but every club will have difficult games between now and the end of the season. I only think of the next game. If we win that, I start thinking about the one afterwards. It is usually a mistake to look too far ahead, it gets too daunting. That's why you plan ahead in stages. We don't do it in one hit."
The visit of Manchester City to Anfield on 13 April still looks to have title decider written all over it, though to stay in charge of their own destiny Liverpool need to negotiate West Ham away on Sunday afternoon. As Chelsea found at Crystal Palace last week, opponents in the bottom half of the Premier League table cannot be taken for granted.
"It's a big game, they are all big games now," Rodgers said. "West Ham are in good form, six wins out of nine, and are a difficult opponent because of the way they play. The other results last weekend gave us a boost, but I can't say they surprised me. This is why we keep saying the Premier League is the most competitive in the world.
"Bayern Munich's domestic season is over with seven games to play. The Spanish league is tight at the top, and in Italy Juventus are well in front. But in England a team like Palace can peg back a side going for the title. Whether you are playing the top team or the bottom team in this country, you always have to go into the game with the right mentality. You have to respect your opponents and then try to bring your own game to bear on the match."
If it is true that West Ham are difficult opponents because of the way they play, that must have something to do with Andy Carroll, the attacking spearhead Rodgers allowed to leave Anfield for Upton Park, along with Stewart Downing. It would, of course, be embarrassing were a goal or two from Carroll to knock Liverpool off course, though, on the other hand, it appears unlikely the club would be on the lofty perch they occupy had Rodgers retained an old-fashioned centre-forward and compromised the attacking style that has evolved this season through the direct pace and penetration that Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez can offer.
"Andy wasn't let go because he wasn't good enough. I think both he and Stewart Downing are fantastic players," Rodgers explained. "But Andy wanted games, he needed to play every week, and I just couldn't offer him that. West Ham play in a different way, and for that style of football there's not many better than Andy. He is one of the best players in Europe at attacking the ball in the air."
Excited as Rodgers is to be in sight of the end of the season and a possible first title for Liverpool in almost a quarter of a century, he is keen to emphasise that his main aim is consistency over a period of time. A title would mean everything, particularly to a player such as Steven Gerrard, who had practically given up hope of getting this close before retirement, but Rodgers would be disappointed were his side to prove unable to match this season's standards in the years to come.
"The challenge is to make it sustainable," he said. "Ideally we would like a situation where young players can get into the team, senior players have the opportunity to be better, and Liverpool are up there in the market for the best players in the world.
"We are a little ahead of schedule at the moment, but you could see against Tottenham last week, when we had the chance to go top, that we stayed calm and played with composure as well as aggression. Now I am hearing that we are only doing so well because we are not playing in Europe. I keep having that thrown at me. But coming from where we started has been unprecedented. I have been watching the Premier League for a long time and I have never seen a team from outside the top four going anywhere near winning the title."