April 15 (Reuters) - Liverpool are close to a first league title since 1990 but Steven Gerrard's tears after Sunday's win over Manchester City were a mix of joy and sadness, the 3-2 triumph coming close to the anniversary of one of English football's darkest days.
Tuesday marks 25 years since the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a crush at an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest held at Sheffield Wednesday's ground on 15 April, 1989.
Prior to Sunday's kickoff, supporters at the Kop end of Anfield spelled out a message reading "96 25 years", with the emotion of the occasion adding to the intense atmosphere witnessed for the top-of-the-table clash.
On Tuesday, Liverpool will hold a memorial service at Anfield, where manager Brendan Rodgers is scheduled to deliver a reading, along with Roberto Martinez, his counterpart at fellow Merseyside club Everton.
The disaster has left a deep scar on the club and the city of Liverpool, while fresh inquests into the fatalities are being held after the original verdict of accidental death was thrown out by the High Court in 2012.
The process has been adjourned for a week because of the anniversary.
Liverpool captain Gerrard has never won a league title in his 17 years at the club but following Sunday's victory, the memory of the 96 fans who did not return home from Hillsborough, including his 10-year-old cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley, were at the forefront of his mind.
MORE THAN FOOTBALL
"The reason I was so emotional was because of when this game fell," Gerrard told the British media following the win which moved leaders Liverpool to 77 points, two ahead of Chelsea with four matches remaining, and seven ahead of City, who have two games in hand.
"It wasn't just because it was a big match in our season, it was because this week is always about more than football for everyone associated with Liverpool," the 33-year-old England captain added.
"It's emotional for so many people. I'm speaking on behalf of everyone when I say the win was dedicated to the victims and families of Hillsborough. All the squad will be present at the service (on Tuesday) to pay our respects, as we should."
During Tuesday's service the number 96 will be spelled out on the Anfield pitch using scarves donated by fans from around the world, following an appeal by Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool manager at the time of the disaster.
Matches in England's top eight tiers started seven minutes late at the weekend to commemorate Hillsborough, where the game was abandoned after six minutes, while 96 seats were left empty, except for a Liverpool scarf, at the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley. (Reporting by Josh Reich; Editing by John O'Brien)