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Back in the big time: Liverpool can challenge next season despite title collapse

Most of the Merseysiders' key players have their best years ahead of them and Brendan Rodgers has shown he knows how to improve a team and mount a league challenge.

There was no dramatic late twist in the title race. Only in its wildest dreams would Liverpool’s fans have reasonably expected it.

But there was a real sense of pride at Anfield as Liverpool came from behind against Newcastle United to end the season as Premier League runner up and just two points adrift of champion Manchester City.

VIEW FROM ANFIELD
By Wayne Veysey

Liverpool was way below its best today but ended an uplifting season with a 2-1 win against nine-man Newcastle to clinch a fully deserved runner up spot.

It needed the team's 101st league goal of the season, from Daniel Sturridge, to overcome a stubborn Newcastle, but the manner of Martin Skrtel's first-half own goal showed why this team fell short in the final reckoning.

Ultimately, the attacking brilliance of Brendan Rodgers' team could not mask the team's defensive flaws, which were apparent even during their remarkable 11-match winning run.

The players who had taken the title race to the last day looked dejected in the aftermath of this victory as they trooped off down the tunnel in the knowledge that West Ham had failed to pull off an upset at the other end of the east Lancashire road.

When they re-emerged soon after with their children for the end-of-season lap of honor, they dutifully soaked up the applause and din of the fans without quite being able to hide their disappointment.

Yet there was no sense of dismay among the home support, who feted the Liverpool players like heroes.

Rightly so. Despite stumbling over the late-season hurdles that cost them the chance of ending its 24-year pursuit of the holy grail, this has been a wonderfully uplifting campaign for one of English football’s true thoroughbreds.

It missed the chance nobody was giving it in the first place after creating an opportunity with a series of sensational attacking performances that threatened to power it all the way to the Premier League podium.

The self-destructive circumstance in which Liverpool’s title bid was ruined, first with Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea and then the late collapse against Crystal Palace, can be used to support a narrative that Brendan Rodgers’ team blew its title bid.

However, in its last 14 matches of the season, Liverpool dropped five points out of a possible 42. Hardly much of a disintegration, is it?

To jump from seventh to second in the space of 12 months is a magnificent achievement, especially given the financial resources at the disposal of Rodgers in relation to his managerial rivals. His team has won 16 out of 19 home games this season. A season that began with the ambition of solid progress became something far more.

Rodgers used his program notes to emphasize the disparity in resources between Liverpool and title rivals Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

"We have a small squad compared to the teams we have been competing with at the top end of the table, which means our players have had to go to the well more often and for longer periods.," he wrote "To sustain a title challenge, and in the process perform to such a level and provide the entertainment they have, I really thank them for their dedication and professionalism. There is no doubting this group of players have vastly out-performed what was expected of them externally before a ball was kicked.”

Some say that the failure to win it this year will mean Liverpool may not do so again for years.

Yet there is persuasive evidence to suggest Rodgers' team can improve next season, despite the considerable task of maintaining a league challenge while competing in the Champions League for the first time in five years.

The best years lie ahead for most of the key players in the squad. Steven Gerrard, who turns 34 later this month, is at the veteran stage of his magnificent career, but all of the other prize assets are either at their peak, approaching it or are still some way off.

Luis Suarez is 27, while Simon Mignolet (25), Daniel Sturridge (24), Jordan Henderson (23), Joe Allen (24), Philippe Coutinho (21), Jon Flanagan (21) and Raheem Sterling (19) are also at ages where they should play their top football in the future.

The attacking foundations are certainly in place and could soon be bolstered by the signing of Adam Lallana, the technically gifted Southampton attacking midfielder who will join half the Liverpool team in the England squad that is announced on Monday.

Clearly, remedial work needs to be done to Liverpool’s defense. Its defensive flaws were apparent once again Sunday when Martin Skrtel wildly sliced an attempted clearance into his own net.

A new fullback and two center backs should be on Rodgers’ shopping list, as well as midfield minder to beef up what is the thinnest of the squads that finished in the top seven of the Premier League.

Man City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal will spend big in the summer, but that doesn’t mean they will spend wisely or dramatically improve.

The great imponderable is whether Liverpool can hang on to Suarez, but owners Fenway Sports Group have shown they will not be bullied in the transfer market.

Now they are back aboard the Champions League gravy train, FSG needs to back Rodgers and the club’s team of recruitment specialists in the forthcoming window. The northern Irishman has worked wonders this season and proved he knows how to make use of the assets at his disposal.

The bar at Anfield has been raised, and the fans have a team of which to be proud, as Rodgers attested. "What we have achieved over the past 10 months has been nothing short of outstanding and when the full-time whistle goes this afternoon everyone who has contributed to it can be proud of their efforts."

A captivating campaign ended on a high. There should be plenty more to come for this team.

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