Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge put Liverpool back on their perch
Uruguayan striker grabs his first Anfield hat-trick, and his fourth in total this season
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez leaves the pitch at half time after scoring two goals against West Brom.
Knocking Liverpool off their perch was not enough, it transpired. Alex Ferguson aimed a final barb at old enemies in his autobiography by suggesting they were nowhere near returning to their former pre-eminence.
Yet while Brendan Rodgers has spent much of the past few days rebuffing his former rival’s various claims, there is one that he has been happier to overlook. Ferguson said Liverpool were eight players away from being a title-winning team and, apart from a quip that if that is the case then Manchester United, six points beneath them, must be 10 players short, Rodgers has not responded.
After defeating United, he chuckled when asked if Liverpool were potential champions. His preference is to change the subject or to use his favourite phrase about being “in the conversation” for a top-four finish.
Yet at their current rate of progress, Liverpool are on course to end with 84 points and if the 10-game mark represents a barometer of a team’s prospects, they are 90 minutes away from losing their billing as an early-season anomaly in the standings.
“After 10 games you have a little look but we will assess it as we go along,” Rodgers said. That the 10th game is against Arsenal on Saturday means it will provide a truer test.
A friendly fixture list helps explain why they have passed under the radar so far. That Rodgers lacks game-changing substitutes perhaps explains Ferguson’s take. Yet as Liverpool may play only 41 games this season, their first XI could have the opportunity to stay fit and fresh.
As it is, Daniel Agger, Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez have started only four of the first nine games, Glen Johnson five and Lucas Leiva seven.
The attacking axis of Suarez and Daniel Sturridge has delivered 10 goals in the four league games they have started together, with the Uruguayan’s hat-trick on Saturday giving him the majority share in a windfall. “The front two are as good as it gets,” Rodgers said.
After winning at Old Trafford and deservedly drawing with Arsenal, Albion arrived at Anfield with a reputation as the scourge of the elite. They departed demolished by Suarez and Sturridge. “Some days you need to hold your hands up and say the best team won,” the West Bromwich manager, Steve Clarke, said.
Sturridge scored a delectable chip that Rodgers felt was reminiscent of Kenny Dalglish. Suarez’s treble included a typically cheeky opener – the unfortunate Jonas Olsson was nutmegged en route to goal – and an 18-yard header that was still more audacious.
Clarke, who coached Suarez in his days as Dalglish’s assistant, agreed: “When you look at the strikers around the world then he’s certainly in the top five.”
It was an opinion that cut to the heart of the issue of Suarez’s future: he may be one of the top five forwards on the planet, yet Liverpool have not finished in the country’s top five since 2009. That suggests a mismatch.
When Suarez abandoned his attempts to leave Anfield in August, many assumed it would prove a temporary truce. The thought was Suarez would be in next season’s Champions League, even if Liverpool would not be.
Yet with every win, the greater the chance they will venture into Europe together and with every goal, the more it appears relations have been repaired. “He has the support and love of everyone at the club,” said Rodgers. “And because this is a worldwide institution, I still maintain that even if we were in mid-table that this was the place for him to be.”
It is a not a view Suarez seemed to share in the summer, when he tired of delivering magnificence amid mediocrity. Yet it was easier for Rodgers to say that as he savoured the view from near the top. At this stage of the past four seasons, Liverpool were eighth, 18th, fifth and 12th respectively.
Now they might be in the title race. Just do not expect them to admit it.