For a while the Premier League title race has seemed a foregone conclusion, with Manchester City looking sure to pick up the trophy for the fourth time in five campaigns.
Pep Guardiola’s side moved 12 points clear at the top of the table on Wednesday with a routine 2-0 victory over Brentford, but old title foes Liverpool responded on Thursday by winning 2-0 against Leicester to cut the deficit to nine points – with a game in hand.
There is real unpredictability about this Covid-hit season and Jurgen Klopp’s men have the opportunity to claw back further ground should they win that game, against Leeds, on 23 February.
Assuming both teams win their two league fixtures between now and then, City’s once double-digit lead would be cut to just six points.
The two teams meet at Etihad Stadium in April, offering the Reds a chance to eat into that lead even further.
It is that equation which meant the post-match interviews and analysis at Anfield on Thursday involved plenty of talk about whether an unlikely Liverpool title challenge might still be on.
“I am not sure we are in a position to get them on their toes,” said Reds boss Jurgen Klopp. “We have no chance to catch them but that does not mean we shall not try to play the best possible season for us.
“We have to win our football games and this football club is massive. There is a game, we put on the shirt and we have to win it. It doesn’t work out all the time.
“It was really important for us to win tonight. It is not about us catching City – there are a lot of teams behind us who want to get closer. That is an important task as well.”
While Klopp played down his side’s chances, Spain midfielder Thiago Alcantara took a different view.
“We are still there,” he said. “We have played one game less and have to face them there, so it is still an open Premier League.”
Liverpool and City have tussled for the title for the past five seasons and are setting the standard in the top flight of English football once more, both sides having been beaten just twice in the league so far.
The Reds are the top scorers with 60 goals in 23 games, while City’s 57 is the second highest. Guardiola’s men, though, have conceded the fewest goals in the division, shipping just 14 from their 24 matches played.
Liverpool will need to continue their fine form if they are to overhaul the deficit – they are on a run of one defeat in their past 19 games in all competitions.
And they have plenty of reasons to be optimistic after Thursday’s win. Forward Luis Diaz made an impressive debut, Mohamed Salah returned as a substitute after Africa Cup of Nations duty and Sadio Mane is still to come back into the team after winning Afcon with Senegal.
But the Reds know even winning all their remaining matches might not be enough given City’s own superb form – the champions have won 14 of their past 15 league matches, drawing the other one.
And Liverpool will well remember the 2018-19 season, when they finished the campaign strongly but City won their final 14 matches to pip the Reds to the title by a point.
“The only way we can answer the questions is by getting results,” Reds full-back Andrew Robertson told BT Sport.
“The gap is still too big – we just have to keep putting pressure on them. It will be an exciting run-in hopefully as we are still fighting in four competitions.”
Supporters will already be looking to 9 April when the two sides meet in the Premier League at Etihad Stadium.
That game may prove crucial in deciding the destination of this season’s trophy, and the narrative put forward by Klopp and Robertson that the title is already done and dusted is not shared by all.
Former Premier League striker Clinton Morrison said on BBC Radio 5 Live: “It’s not over and I’m not ruling out Liverpool yet. I said it when Manchester City drew against Southampton, Liverpool are still in it.
“They still have to go to City – they won’t sit back, they’ll cause problems and if they win that after their game in hand then it’s three points [the gap].
“Chelsea are out of it but I think it’s a two-horse race. Liverpool have a great opportunity – I think it will go right down to the wire.
“There are still a lot of games to go. The only ‘if’ is whether they can go and beat Man City.”
However, former Premier League goalkeeper Rob Green questioned how many times City might “slip up”.
He added: “Can you see Manchester City losing that many points? It’s tough to see where but if anyone’s going to grind it out and bang out these wins it will be Liverpool.
“They just looked so impressive [on Thursday night] and you think when they get all those cogs going in the right direction they’ll be hunting them down.”