MANCHESTER, England — It was only three months ago that Liverpool exited the Champions League at the group stage, was closer to the relegation zone than the top four in the Premier League, and its manager thought he was about to get fired.
Now, the Reds are the in-form side in England, Brendan Rodgers is being praised for his tactical acumen, and the team is one win away from a return to the Champions League qualification places.
To make it even sweeter for Liverpool, that win could come on Sunday against its fiercest rival.
Liverpool hosts Manchester United at Anfield in what is traditionally seen as the biggest game in English football — and there is much more than simply local bragging rights at stake.
Liverpool can supplant United in fourth place with a victory that would maintain its unbeaten run in the league since the teams last met, at Old Trafford on Dec. 14. On that occasion, United won 3-0 and Liverpool was on the slide — a far cry from the one that almost won the Premier League last season.
It has made up a 10-point deficit to the top four since then — a "monumental" effort, according to Rodgers.
"We haven't done anything yet," Rodgers said, "but from where we were at the start of the season, the intent that they have shown and the work they have had to put in to claw that back and to give ourselves a fighting chance, (it) is great."
United comes into the match on the back of probably its most impressive performance of the season, a 3-0 win over Tottenham. It was the kind of upbeat, dynamic display that manager Louis van Gaal had been waiting for. The question, with nine matches remaining, is: can United keep it up?
For a while, it seemed England's two most successful sides were fighting for one of the two final Champions League places, behind the top two of Chelsea and Manchester City.
However, second-place City is stumbling and is only a point clear of third-place Arsenal, two ahead of United and four ahead of fifth-place Liverpool. Even Chelsea is within sight of the chasing pack now, with the leaders seven points clear of Arsenal.
Chelsea visits Hull, Manchester City is at home to West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal is away to Newcastle.
Here are some things to know about the latest round of fixtures in England's top division:
DI MARIA DILEMMA
United's best display of the season coincided with the absence of Angel Di Maria because of suspension.
So, Van Gaal has a big decision to make: Does he bring back a player that cost almost 60 million pounds ($88 million) — a British record fee — in the summer, or stick with Juan Mata, who impressed against Spurs in his first start since mid-January?
Chelsea has a new gripe — apparently, the team isn't being awarded enough penalties.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has spoken of a "clear campaign" against his side this season, a complaint that earned him a fine of 25,000 pounds (then $38,000) in January.
Now, the leaders have addressed the "abnormally low" number of penalties they have received, in an article on the club's website entitled "Penalty Puzzle."
Chelsea earned seven penalties last season and 11 the season before. "This season's tally of two unquestionably bucks the recent trend," the article says, "yet our position as clear league leaders and second-highest scorers suggests we can't be labelled anything other than an attacking side, spending plenty of time in the opposition box."
Chelsea might be glad to be playing away this weekend — it has drawn three of its last four home games in the league, meaning that the team is creeping rather than powering to the title.
Dick Advocaat takes charge of his first match as Sunderland manager when his new team visits West Ham on Saturday. The experienced Dutchman replaced Gus Poyet, who was fired on Monday as Sunderland slips toward the relegation zone. Sunderland is a point and a place above the bottom three.
It is perhaps an ideal start for Advocaat — West Ham is winless in its last eight games in all competitions.
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