When it comes to masterpieces, the portrait of the 2013-14 Premier League season will not be hanging in a gallery of any prestige. Teams one through twenty competing in England's top flight are each fatally flawed. A wide-open, highly competitive and mistake-filled season has followed. It's all been very entertaining. But near perfection from any team has been only but a dream.
Through the mess of inconsistent play, it's Liverpool FC shining brightest. With just four games to go, Liverpool looks set to win their first top flight league title since 1989-90. Liverpool controls its own destiny; a situation entirely far-fetched even just months ago. Who knew all it would take was the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson for Liverpool to fly back towards their perch. Even in retirement Ferguson warned of Liverpool's potential. The Fergie kryptonite is no more.
The beauty of imperfection; it's the ideal way to describe Liverpool's season. The team play, the goals, and the tempo – it's been beautiful to watch. But through all the beauty are an abundance of flaws. Defensively, the team remains a mess, on pace to concede more goals than any Premier League Champion in its 22-year history. The squad leaves much to be desired, having holes that would make Swiss cheese envious. None of the shortcomings are a bother to Liverpool supporters, but it will be reasonable to question whether long-term, continued success is sustainable at Anfield. Those questions will be asked and answered another day.
So how has this come to be? How has Liverpool made the meteoric jump from lesser like to the top of the pile? Confidence is a funny thing. Subtle moves have paid dividends, no more than the acquisition of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. The Belgian has conceded a number of head-scratching goals, but they have been far outweighed by his stabilizing demeanor, bringing belief to a vulnerable and ever-changing back four. His goals-against average doesn't flatter, but his influence does.
Young players have also emerged, but it's been a snowball effect. Confidence is contagious. The team has remained on the same page through transfer window rumour turmoil, leaks in defence and multiple injuries at key positions. The successful formula has been entirely impressive. Liverpool doesn't experience the lulls in matches typical to Manchester City. Nor do they rely on the negative approach of Chelsea. And they certainly don't encounter the tactical brain cramps of Arsenal. Other teams may have better players, more talent and higher payrolls. But none have the team spirit and belief of Liverpool.
No matter how, the fact remains title contending football has returned to Merseyside. Commitment to team play and consistency in approach no matter the formation has culminated in a 10 game winning streak and a two-point cushion atop the table. Credit the manager Brendan Rodgers, who in less than two years has transformed his team from long-ball fiends to a group confident with the ball on the ground with the best off the ball movement in the Premier League.
The shredding of the Manchester City backline Sunday in a back and forth 3-2 victory is testament to the confidence within the team and commitment to playing well-balanced, attractive football. Capitalizing on mistakes is part of it; no team has been more advantageous than Rodgers men, scoring an incredible 93 goals. Phillipe Coutinho's 76th minute winner was product of a Vincent Kompany gaffe, rather than any superior ball movement that has become commonplace for the Reds. But the cool finish by the Brazilian is trademark of this year's team; calm, cool and collected in front of goal. The scenes at the final whistle were as memorable as the game itself, with longtime captain and inspirational leader Steven Gerrard emotionally addressing his teammates in huddle. The finish line is there to be seen. Gerrard will be relied to navigate across the line through potential rough waters.
Norwich City lay ahead on the weekend. A trip to Carrow Road will not scare, even without Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge available. Luis Suarez has scored 11 goals in five meetings against Norwich, and the Canaries are on a run of form as dire as any in the league. Typically, this weekend's fixture would scream 'let-down game' for Liverpool. Especially after a week that's been a roller coaster ride of emotions, from the win against City through the 25th anniversary services commemorating the 96 lives lost in the Hillsborough tragedy. It's all been a deeply moving and mentally exhausting week: from reflection to justice.
25 years of pain and anguish for the club, families and friends involved in the tragedy. At the same time but altogether much different, 25 years of an alternative kind of pain from inferior results by their beloved team on the field. Liverpool has remained a worldwide marketing force as one of Europe's most decorated clubs. The ability to compete without a new stadium, against the financial giants of the Premier League has left Liverpool secondary citizens in a league they used to dominate. That is until now. The old flame is back. The belief. The winning attitude.
City's money, Chelsea's Chosen One, Arsenal's big city charm, and previous dominance of United are secondary for now. The feelings of 25 years are back for all the right reasons. Liverpool's 2005 Champions League glory was a small reminder of where the club had come from. A Premier League title in 2013-14 would mean so much more. Through the beauty of imperfection, Liverpool is almost there.
- Crystal Palace looked relegation bound mere months ago. Now they are flying, winning four straight, look safe from relegation and a playing a big role in the title race. Palace dealt Everton a crucial blow towards Champions League qualification, going to Goodison Park and beating the upstart Toffees 3-2. Jason Puncheon has emerged a scoring machine and true difference maker in the Palace midfield. You have to feel good for Puncheon, who had trouble getting over a horrible penalty miss against Spurs in January. From embarrassment to electric play, Puncheon has been fantastic. Manager Tony Pulis has got Palace playing in the mold of his former club, Stoke City. Palace is big, strong, determined and out-work virtually every team they play. Joel Ward's defending has been outstanding, and the January additions of Scott Dann and Joe Ledley have been massive. Palace has a huge role to play, with a fixture against Liverpool at Selhurst Park ahead. The May 5th result will go a long way to determining who will be Champion.
- Was Saturday's FA Cup semifinal shootout victory the moment that keeps Arsene Wenger at Arsenal? The Gunners were pushed to the brink by FA Cup holders Wigan, in a match lacking requisite commitment by the London-side until late. The over-the-top end of game celebration showed what the result meant for a club without meaningful silverware since 2005. The trophy drought is unacceptable for any club of Arsenal's magnitude. Wenger's '4th place is a win' mentality shouldn't sit well either. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be back at the club for another season. A proper succession plan is required for a club with a vision dominated by one figure for the better part of two decades. Manchester United was ill equipped to deal with Ferguson's sudden departure. Arsenal should be thinking long-term and plan accordingly for what post-Wenger life at the Emirates will look like. The finances are in good order. But a new footballing vision would be welcomed. A new short-term deal is preferable for Wenger with a proper plan how to proceed in place. A knee-jerk decision on Wenger's future is the last thing the club needs.
- It's time for Jose Mourinho to shine. Enough downplaying his teams' chances of winning the league. Chelsea is right in the mix. A win at Anfield would put Mourinho's men in pole position for the title. The problem: the Liverpool fixture is sandwiched between Chelsea's Champions League semi-final tie against Atletico Madrid. How Mourinho manages his side and the tactical approach will be critical. While he can play a conservative, defensive approach in the first leg at Atletico, similar tactics will not be suffice for the trip to Liverpool. He will have to open things up and play to win at Anfield; something his team hasn't done on away travels this season in the Premier League. The next fortnight will test all Mourinho brings to the table to see if he can get the most of his squad that's still in transition.