Brendan Rodgers is relishing the prospect of facing his old mentor, José Mourinho, when Liverpool travel to Chelsea
Brendan Rodgers can remember his first season working at Chelsea, turning up at the training ground on his birthday in January and finding a giant cake waiting in the canteen. "I was only the youth team manager so I was touched," he said. "I thought they must think a lot of me and I was flattered. It turns out I share a birthday with José Mourinho. He is exactly 10 years older than me. The birthday cake was for him, but at least I got a slice."
The Liverpool manager has shared a lot more with Mourinho since the latter invited him to join him at Stamford Bridge in 2004. "I was able to observe one of the world's best operators going about his business. José gave me the self-esteem and confidence I needed to make my own way in management," Rodgers explained. "I probably wouldn't be where I am now but for him. I regard him as a friend now, but he is actually a great organiser, the best controller of day-to-day detail I have ever met."
There might be friendship and mutual admiration on the sidelines at Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, when the old pals meet as managers for the first time since Mourinho's return to England. But a fresher memory than the birthday cake episode is what happened the last time the two sides met, when Luis Suárez took a bite of Branislav Ivanovic.
The transformation in the Uruguayan since then has been remarkable, especially as he spent the summer agitating for a move from Anfield and making himself thoroughly unpopular. Now stand-in captain, with a £10m-a-year contract that notionally keeps him tied to the club until 2018, Suárez is the Premier League's top scorer, the Football Supporters' Federation's player of the year, and in such a rich vein of form that John W Henry's famous response to Arsenal's summer bid of £40m plus £1 – "What are they smoking at the Emirates?" – now seems like the height of common sense. That was not quite how it was received at the time.
As recently as the summer there were plenty of people who thought Liverpool should bite Arsenal's hand off, so to speak, because clubs were not exactly lining up to pay good money for such a troublesome commodity who would begin the season with a ban. "Luis was in a real bad place after the last incident, there was a lot of self-reflection and he probably felt he couldn't have gone any lower," Rodgers said.
"Sometimes you have to get to that point before you can see the way forward. It was a real test for all of us. You don't learn about how to deal with that when you are doing your coaching courses, it's not part of the manual. But I have always been interested in personal coaching, looking after the welfare of players and not just sending them out to play football, and I could see Luis felt the world was against him.
premeditated in his action, he said he was sorry straight away. He's a good man and a joy to work with but he has this incredible will to win and competitive spirit. I felt he needed to get out of the country to begin his recuperation, so we arranged that, and possibly because he felt he was at the lowest point in his career he has come back a much happier player. His performances speak for themselves, he loves being captain and his behaviour and the maturity he has shown this season have been exemplary.
"I think he has learned some of that from Steven Gerrard. He understands the culture of this country and the traditions of this club a bit more now. He enjoys the responsibility of being captain, but when he gave the armband to Daniel Agger the other day it showed he has the respect and humility to remember that Daniel is vice-captain of the club."
Liverpool could have been top of the league after Christmas but for what Rodgers unrepentantly insists was a travesty of refereeing justice at Manchester City. Yet while the visitors may have been the better side at the Etihad, the defeat still leaves them without a win over any of the sides currently forming the top four.
"Do Manchester United and Tottenham not count then?" Rodgers asked. "We've beaten a Champions League club already and Spurs were in the top four in recent history. I'll admit that Arsenal were the better side and you could argue we should have beaten Everton at Goodison, but the beauty is we have all these teams to play at home in the second half of the season.
"The results will come, even though we are substantially behind our main rivals in terms of the growth of the squads. I'd like to think we are now toe to toe with the top teams, and that wasn't quite the case when I first came in 18 months ago.
"We are competing now, and we are still improving. We showed that against Manchester City, who have destroyed everyone apart from Bayern Munich at home this season. We have one or two targets to try and bring in this January, and if we can do that, the next target will be to set up camp in the top four."