On Tuesday night, Liverpool fans were in the peculiar position of hoping for a Manchester United win. Well, “win" might be pushing the generosity even self-interested Liverpool fans are capable of feeling towards rivals they abhor. And Manchester United are genuinely reviled in a way that even local rival Everton simply aren’t. Most Liverpool fans were probably hoping for a draw.

That way United wouldn’t have had the satisfaction of a win against their local rivals and Liverpool would still have been left in the position of needing to win their remaining eight games, regardless of other results, to become English champions for the first time since 1990.

In the event, United lost the Manchester derby. Just another sapping, humiliating home defeat, this time to Manchester City (3-0, the same score by which United lost to Liverpool at Old Trafford on 16 March), in a season that has already seen more home defeats than at any time since the late 1970s. Unsurprisingly, to win their first league title in 24 years, Liverpool will need to look elsewhere for favours—even if they win all their games, they need at least one other team to either defeat or draw with Manchester City.

Manchester United went 26 years without a league title, between 1967 and 1993, before Alex Ferguson—who left the Aberdeen team he had led to unprecedented success to become Manchester United manager in 1986—succeeded in “knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch". Now, in the very first season since his retirement, it is Liverpool who stand with a hand poised on their great rival’s back, ready to administer the unceremonious shove.

This is not the first season Liverpool have had such an opportunity. Former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier’s hubristic “10 games away from greatness" line was delivered in April 2002, just as he was about to preside over a Liverpool collapse against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League quarter-finals and a distant second-place finish to Arsenal in the league. In 2008-09, a powerful Liverpool side, featuring Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard in midfield and Fernando Torres up front, led the league at Christmas, 3 points clear of Chelsea and 7 clear of Manchester United, though the latter had two games in hand.

On 28 December 2008, the league leaders went to Newcastle United, a traditionally difficult fixture played in front of vibrant, committed home support, and won 5-1. Gerrard scored twice. He celebrated that night by getting arrested for beating up a DJ at a Liverpool nightclub. Though he was later acquitted of assault, what should have been a triumphant night ended in a squalid farce. And what should have been a triumphant season for Liverpool—a season in which they beat Real Madrid 5-0 over two legs in the Champions League, beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford, scored the most goals in the Premier League and lost only two games—ended without a trophy.

That season ended, like so many seasons in the Premier League era (13 out of 21, since the first division became the premier league in 1992), with Manchester United being crowned champions.

Some Liverpool fans argue, with intense if hollow conviction, that it wasn’t Alex Ferguson who knocked Liverpool off their perch. The club was no longer on any perch. Arsenal won the league in 1991, with Liverpool lagging some way behind as runners-up. In 1992, Liverpool won the Football Association Challenge Cup (FA Cup) but finished sixth in the league. It was the fierce former Scotland and Liverpool captain Graeme Souness’ first season as Liverpool manager. Faced with an ageing squad that had lost its motivation, Souness turned a silk purse, even a fraying one, into a sow’s ear.

Under Kenny Dalglish—like Souness a Scotsman, and indisputably the club’s greatest player—Liverpool had won a League and FA Cup double in his first season in 1986 and come as close as is possible to matching that achievement in 1988 and 1989. Liverpool were champions in 1986, 1988 and 1990, lost the league on goal difference in 1989 (see the cathartic conclusion to Nick Hornby’s novel Fever Pitch), and won the FA Cup in 1986 and 1989, losing to rough and tumble Wimbledon in the 1988 final, one of the most unexpected Cup Final results in English football’s long history.

As a player, Dalglish, although near the end of his career, was the hippocampus, the scheming brain of the Liverpool side that lost to Juventus in the 1985 European Cup final, the match preceded by the death of 39, mostly Juventus, fans and injuries to hundreds when a wall collapsed at the crumbling Heysel stadium in Brussels, Belgium. The deaths were blamed on Liverpool fans who had swarmed menacingly into a Juventus section occupied mostly by families. As a manager, he was at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989 when 96 Liverpool fans died during the FA Cup semi-final because the negligent police let too many fans into one stand, resulting in a fatal crush. The emotional burden on Dalglish, who attended as many as four funerals a day after Hillsborough, led to him resigning as Liverpool manager in February 1991.

Kenny Dalglish, manager of Liverpool celebrates with Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen after victory in the Carling Cup Final match between Liverpool and Cardiff City at Wembley Stadium in London on 26 February, 2012. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Defeat against Manchester City on Tuesday leaves United 18 points behind league leaders Chelsea. If Liverpool win their game on Wednesday night against Sunderland, they will be 17 points clear of United, dislodging Manchester City from second place.

If Liverpool came close on a couple of occasions during Ferguson’s tenure to dislodging United from the top of English football, will they succeed in this first attempt after the retirement of United’s dictator-talisman?

It has been and remains an unlikely renaissance. For the last four seasons Liverpool have oscillated between sixth and eighth positions in the final league tables. Last season, the team finished seventh. This season, if what is still largely the same squad of players wins their remaining games, Liverpool will finish at least second, behind Manchester City. Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, a man with a CV even more shallow than Moyes’ and an easily mockable penchant for the grandiloquent, has turned a mediocre, underperforming team into the most watchable in English football.

There have been 120 goals scored in 30 Liverpool league games this season, 82 of them by Liverpool. Even if Liverpool fail to overtake Manchester City and Chelsea to win the league, Rodgers would be justified in proclaiming the season an unqualified success. But can this Liverpool side, still a work in progress led by one great player on the wane (Gerrard) and another great at the absolute peak of his astonishing prowess (Luis Suarez), push itself over the line?

A win at Anfield, Liverpool’s fabled home ground, against relegation-haunted Sunderland tonight (or in the early hours of Thursday morning, India time, if you’re a stickler for such things as clocks) will put Liverpool a single point behind Chelsea and two ahead of Manchester City, though City have two games in hand. Both City and Chelsea have still to visit Anfield, where Liverpool have won 12 out of 14 games, scoring three goals a game on average. Chelsea and City are both stronger teams, more complete squads, but Liverpool have momentum, a bravado that appears to be as much a product of disbelief at finding itself in this position as of self-confidence.

Even if Liverpool do pull off the near-impossible feat of pocketing a league title, it is unlikely to be the start of a Manchester United-style run. Liverpool already had that in the 1970s and 1980s. It will, though, be the most satisfying of pokes in the eye of an old enemy. And, though it is counterintuitive to say this of Liverpool, as successful and dominant a superclub as any, a welcome return to romance in a league long shorn of sentiment.

In sport, we’re always told, anything can happen. Liverpool as plucky Davids preparing their slingshots? No football fan who grew up in the 1970s or 1980s can quite believe his (or her) eyes.

Liverpool vs Sunderland, kickoff 1.30am, 27 March. Live on Star Sports 4 and HD2.

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