Amid the fretting and the finger pointing, the fear and the disappointment, it was left to Liverpool’s most senior player to put his side’s draw at West Ham into context.
The Reds were far from impressive at the London Stadium, limping to a second successive 1-1 draw. Their lead at the top of the Premier League table, which looked like it would extend to seven points a week ago, could be wiped out entirely if Manchester City beat Everton at Goodison Park on Wednesday night.
Worrying? Certainly for supporters, who witnessed another low-quality performance from their team and who have reason to be concerned at the club’s mounting injury list.
Jurgen Klopp and his players, though, prefer a more measured approach. And so when James Milner, who had climbed off his sick bed to put in another shift as an auxiliary right-back on Monday night, was asked afterwards whether he was “concerned” at recent events, there was only going to be one response.
“Concerned?!” he replied, shooting his inquisitor a glare that could have stopped traffic. “Concerned being top of the league in February? No, I’m happy!”
He has a point. Liverpool remain, as things stand, the team in the driving seat despite dropping four points in five days. City can temporarily steal top spot this week, but only due to a fixture brought forward by their involvement in the Carabao Cup final later this month. Liverpool, of course, will have the chance to make points up that weekend.
And while recent displays have been sketchy, the damage is far from irreparable. When City beat the Reds at the Etihad Stadium on January 2, the gap between the two sides was four points. Liverpool have laboured against Brighton, Crystal Palace, Leicester and West Ham since, and the margin has only shrunk by a single point. City, too, are capable of wobbles. Liverpool remain, for now at least, clear.
“That’s the key word, clear,” Milner said. “We are clear at the top of the league in February.
“[Talk of pressure] is irrelevant really. You take care of your own games. If someone said we’d be three points clear at this stage of the season we’d have taken it. There were people saying at the start of the season that Man City are the best team the Premier League has ever seen and stuff like that, so to be just close to them is good for us.
“There’s been a lot of talk outside the dressing room but the boys have been pretty good at focusing on what we can control. There’s always talk outside the dressing room with Liverpool, I saw it last time when they were going for it with City [in 2013/14].
“We’ve got to keep going, focus on our football and try and enjoy it.”
Enjoy it? Is that possible, when the pressure is so great, when the longing is so vast?
“Yeah,” says Milner. “Playing for relegation and livelihoods and people’s jobs, that’s pressure.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to win titles, I’ve been unfortunate enough to get relegated as well. I’ve experienced it, and these are the times you should be enjoying. There’s a long way to go, a lot can happen, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the league lead changes hands a couple of times before the end of the season.
“We’ve just got to take care of our business. The last couple of games, we haven’t played well but we’re still picking up points. That’s the positive side, we’re not losing games, even if there’s plenty we can improve on.”
Those areas for improvement were clear at West Ham, Liverpool surrendering an early lead for the second time in as many matches, and looking alarmingly susceptible to counterattacks and set-pieces. On another day, two dropped points might have been three.
“It’s a point gained, I think,” said Milner. “It’s not an easy place to come, we didn’t play our best, but you’re going to have times in the season where it’s like that. You’re going to have poor runs.
“Our preparation for the last few games hasn’t been brilliant with the little niggles and injuries we’ve picked up. But hopefully at the end of the season we can look at it as a good point. I don’t think West Ham’s record against the top teams is too bad and they were always going to be up for it.
“We didn’t play our best and there were thing we could have done better. We had our chances, they had theirs. A point is probably fair.”
And with that he was gone, off back to Merseyside to recover and prepare for the next challenge. Bournemouth at home on Saturday, the first of 13 hurdles to be cleared between now and May.
It promises to be tense, but don’t expect Milner to get caught up in the drama and the tension and the terror. At 33, he’s seen too much to get carried away with a title race.
Especially in February…