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Liverpool: A Red revolution for real?

This is where we find out if Liverpool are for real.

Rodgers has had a big hand in his players' improvementPhotograph: PA
Rodgers has had a big hand in his players' improvementPhotograph: PA

Or, at least, for real this season.

A win over Manchester City today would leave Brendan Rodgers' men controlling their own destiny as far as the Premier League title is concerned. The gap over City would open to seven points, nullifying Manuel Pellegrini's two games in hand.

Smooth sailing after that? Not so fast. Because Chelsea are the visitors on April 27, a game sandwiched in between their two Champions' League semi-finals against Atletico Madrid. Fail to win and City, who have a comparatively manageable run-in, are back in pole position.

Not just that, but a defeat to Jose Mourinho's men would swing the pendulum back towards West London. This is what you call a proper title race. And if you think back to the beginning of 2014, it's nothing short of remarkable that Liverpool are in it.

On New Year's Day, they were fifth, six points off the pace. Mamadou Sakho would get injured shortly thereafter, followed by Lucas.

Liverpool would become the side that supposedly could not defend. And yet that day marked the beginning of a 12-game run which saw Rodgers' crew grab 32 of a possible 36 points and gain the top of the table.

If ever there was an argument for managers earning their keep on the training ground as coaches, working with players and tweaking tactics, Rodgers embodies it.

This is pretty much the same group that finished seventh last season. The newcomers - Sakho, Kolo Toure, Aly Cissokho - have contributed modestly, sometimes because of injury, sometimes because they're, well, quite modest players.

If Liverpool are performing better - and they are - it's down largely to the fact that individual players are more productive. In some cases - such as Raheem Sterling - it may just be down to another year of maturity. But in most, it's because of Rodgers' work.

He had the courage to try different systems - three-man defence, diamond, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 - in an effort to maximize his squad and put guys in positions where they would be most effective.

And he had the foresight (and humility) to vary the philosophy based on the situation: from "death by possession" to greater directness to granting licence to his "differencemakers", Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Which, ultimately, is what good tactics are all about.

It's a change from the Rodgers we saw last season, the one who sometimes looked silly in those fly-on-the-wall documentaries, the one who sometimes bordered on the David Brent.

This one is more nuts and bolts. He's trial and error, sure, but at least he tries things. He thinks about the game and how he can get the best out of what he has in ways that go beyond inspirational speeches and motivation.

Along the way he gets things wrong. But he does what a manager in the modern game needs - above all - to do. He does most of his work on the training pitch, not on the phone with agents or before kick-off in the dressing room or even in the technical area during matches.

An early final and two of the most intense, wound-up managers stalking the sidelines in the European game.

Those are your Champions' League semi-finals and, to put it mildly, they're mouth-watering.

Bayern and Real are probably the two best sides left in the competition, maybe in the world.

On April 23, Pep Guardiola returns to the Bernabeu, a ground where he has an absolutely stellar record: five wins and two draws.

It's enough to awaken the worst paranoias in the minds of a fan-base traumatised by the Pep v Mou wars of yesteryear.

And then there's Atletico Madrid v Chelsea, which so many have distilled to Diego Simeone v Jose Mourinho, two embodiments of intensity on the sidelines.

There is little question that in both cases their teams reflect their manager's personalities or, at least, the personality the managers like to present in the media.

Atletico and Simeone are ­legitimate ­underdogs, outsiders and overachievers. Mourinho likes to make it appear Chelsea are the same (remember his "little horse" trope?).

And there's the most delicious subplot of Simeone's gigantic - in every sense - assistant German "El Mono" Burgos. A furious, red-faced Burgos confronted Mourinho during a Madrid derby in 2012.

"I'm not Tito," he said, referring to Vilanova, the Barcelona boss and Special One eye-poke victim. "I'm going to rip your head off."

You hope it won't come to that. Or maybe you do.

The other notable subplot of course involves Atletico keeper Thibaut Courtois, who is on loan from Chelsea.

Last summer, when his loan deal was renewed, a clause was inserted stipulating that if he were to face his parent club, Atletico would have to pay an additional fee of €3million per match, or around £5m over the two legs.

Not allowing on-loan players to face their parent clubs - which, given the price tag and Atletico's finances is what the deal amounts to - is written into the rules on these shores, but elsewhere it's far from commonplace.

Many view it the way Uefa does: it's a way to influence the decisions of a rival club and, as such, illegal ("unenforceable" is Uefa's term).

It's Uefa's competition, it's their rules, they can do what they like.

At a minimum, it's fair to say Chelsea were foolish not to check the admissibility of the clause before they inserted it, and Atletico were clever to announce its existence, thereby forcing Uefa to take a position.

Chelsea say Courtois is free to play as far as they're concerned (but then, he always was, the question was whether Atletico would have to pay for the privilege) but don't expect the matter to end there.

There are other, behind-the-scenes, ways a club can - if they so choose - exert influence over their players on loan elsewhere.

Whichever way you slice it and whatever happens, it will be a tough few weeks for the 21-year-old standout keeper.

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