What next for Liverpool?
The cloud now raining on what had been its thrilling Premier League campaign has no obvious silver lining. Judging by the funereal look on Steven Gerrard's face and the sobs of Luis Suarez, Liverpool all but handed the EPL trophy to Manchester City when it feverishly blew a three-goal lead at Crystal Palace on Monday.
Perhaps the only thing worse than squandering a golden opportunity is knowing that it might not come around again anytime soon. With Manchester United in post-Alex Ferguson distress, new managers bedding in at City and Chelsea, and Arsenal lacking edge, the stars seemed aligned this season — exceptionally so? — for Liverpool to win its first championship of the Premier League era.
Those four heavyweights will be stronger next season.
United will have spent heavily on new players this summer and will have a new manager, expected to be attack-minded Louis van Gaal, a proven winner.
City's billionaire owners already have the finest collection of players in British football and the appetite to keep improving it. Even with European football powers at UEFA pressuring City to curb spending, its squad has depth of talent to compete on multiple fronts, in the Premier League and Europe.
Under Manuel Pellegrini, its cerebral manager with a degree in civil engineering, City is more studious; the soap operas of his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, have gone. City will be a formidable defending champion if, as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers now expects, it wins the title this coming Sunday, the last day of a season that has seen more twists than a sidewinder snake on hot sand.
Jose Mourinho should have a squad more to his liking in the second season of his second stint at Chelsea. At Arsenal, after this first season of adaptation, greater things will be expected of star player Mesut Ozil.
Rodgers also has plans, with newspapers saying he could add half a dozen players. His defense most obviously needs shoring up, having bled too many goals — 49, with one match to play — for Liverpool to be champion. No winner since the league's founding in 1992 — Manchester United and City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers — let in that many. Liverpool flattered to deceive, scoring so many goals that the holes beneath its waterline didn't seem deadly until it sank against Chelsea, losing 2-0, and then rolled out the welcome mat in front of goal for Palace.
If he strikes again in the last fixture against Newcastle, Suarez will overtake Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo's shared record of 31 goals in a 38-game league season. With one more goal, Liverpool will also have scored 100 in a league season for only the second time in its long and illustrious history and the first time in 118 years. Another four goals would equal Chelsea's record of 103, set under Carlo Ancelotti in 2009-10. But all that seems purely anecdotal now after Liverpool's naivety in letting Palace claw back three in 10 minutes, the 3-3 draw tossing away victory needed to keep pressure on City.
"Hugely disappointing" is how Rodgers described it, although he still sees a bright long-term future for his team.
"We've made clear strides this year." he said. "I've seen a lot this season that has given us great hope going forward. We're trying to build something that is sustainable."
Liverpool's swashbuckling surges on opponents' goals have been fabulous entertainment. The league needs that 'wow' factor again next season to provide an antidote to Mourinho's defensiveness at Chelsea.
Rodgers, who previously coached under Mourinho at Chelsea but then went his own way tactically, unsettled opponents with variations in his team's set-up and the speed of its play from kick-off, scored most of its 99 goals in the first 45 minutes. Manchester City scored most of its 96 goals in the second 45 minutes. Liverpool could lose some of this element of surprise next season, as rivals get wise and perhaps steal a leaf from Mourinho's playbook.
Qualifying for Champions League football will help Rodgers recruit players this summer, because they all want to shine in that competition. But physically and emotionally draining matches in Europe also add a complication.
Finishing seventh in the EPL last year kept Liverpool out of Europe this season. It was eliminated from the League Cup in September and the FA Cup in February. In total, Liverpool will have played 43 matches, comparatively few, giving the team extra time to recover from its high-octane efforts. How will Gerrard, Liverpool's figurehead, 34 this month, cope with a busier schedule, especially after toiling for England at the World Cup this June in the heat of Brazil?
As well as its exciting play, there were other reasons for neutrals to root for Liverpool. A league title would have rewarded Gerrard for his career-long loyalty to Liverpool, increasingly unusual in football's corporate era. It would have brought joy to one of the world's most famous cities, a once-mighty gateway to Britain's pre-World War II empire now bouncing back from recession and crushing unemployment in the 1980s.
For 24 years, the red side of Liverpool has waited to be champion of England again.
If the moment has indeed now slipped past, unseized, the wait may last a lot longer.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester