Alan Hansen: Liverpool are facing six games that could redefine their history
Liverpool are now entering dangerous territory in their pursuit of the Premier League title and Brendan Rodgers must somehow manage a sense of expectation that is threatening to go through the roof at Anfield.
After a 24-year wait to become league champions again, you can smell the excitement, belief and desire that is infusing the whole club. But Liverpool have not yet smelt fear and, having experienced countless title run-ins during my time at the club, the only certainty is that it will come sooner or later and how Rodgers' players deal with that will decide the title race.
At some point, players will become scared because the title will feel so close that a setback here or there will inevitably spark negative thoughts. From this point on, it really does become a test of nerve for everybody involved – players, coaches and supporters.
When I paraded the old Football League championship trophy around Anfield at the end of the 1989-90 season, I could never have imagined that I would become the last Liverpool captain for almost a quarter of a century to lead the club to the title.
Twenty-four years is an awfully long time and the prospect of ending that agonising wait this season is why Liverpool supporters, both inside Anfield, and across the globe, are beginning to believe that this will finally be their year.
Even I am starting to feel that Liverpool will win it this season and I should know better because, until you have experienced and endured the pressures of a run-in, it is impossible to predict how it will go. It is difficult to explain how the pressure takes hold, but the hardest title to win is the first one and Liverpool have to overcome that.
Manchester City, who won the title two years ago, know how to negotiate the final six games of a season and that is an advantage they will have over Liverpool.
But I now believe it is a two-way fight between City and Liverpool and the game between the clubs at Anfield on April 13 will be monumental.
Liverpool's problem is managing the expectation that has rocketed in recent weeks. At the start of the season, Liverpool would have bitten your hand off for fourth place, but the targets have been raised progressively.
It has gone to wanting to claim automatic Champions League qualification with a top-three finish and on to believing that they really have a chance of winning the title.
The stage Liverpool are at now is that people are thinking that they are actually going to win the league and that can be fatal. This is the point where Rodgers and his senior players must say all the right things and keep a lid on everything.
No matter how confident you may be, you are never the league champions until you have the medal in your hand, but Liverpool still have six games to play.
They have won eight on the bounce, but nobody has ever won 14 successive Premier League games, so if a blip comes, where will it be and how damaging will it be?
Liverpool have to take it one game at a time, but that is difficult because it is impossible to avoid looking at the fixtures and second-guessing results. They must also banish complacency because complacency is the enemy of success.
In Liverpool's favour, though, is the reality that they have dealt with every big test that has been put in front of them since the turn of the year.
Both Everton and Arsenal arrived at Anfield with high hopes and big belief, but Liverpool tore them apart with an explosion of pace and goals.
They then went to Old Trafford and came away with a 3-0 victory after dominating Manchester United, while Tottenham were brushed aside at Anfield yesterday.
So many teams are visiting Anfield and being forced into mistake after mistake and Liverpool are playing without a hint of pressure.
And in Steven Gerrard, they have a captain and leader who has become so influential in his holding midfield role that he is making everything tick for the team.
Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see Steven write me out of the history books as the last Liverpool captain to lift the league championship trophy.
But because Liverpool are now so close, they have to go on and win it.
Anyone who says that finishing second will constitute a great season is talking rubbish.
The Liverpool ethos was always to adhere to the maxim that first is first and second is nowhere and, even after a 24-year wait, that remains the case.
A club of Liverpool's standing and history are all about winning trophies and titles, so they have to go on and win it now.
This may be their best chance because City and Chelsea will strengthen, United will not be this bad again next season and it is impossible to imagine that Luis Suarez will have another campaign as good as this.
Liverpool really are facing six games that could redefine the club's history and it is theirs to win if they play it right.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)