By Liam Twomey
When a dream ends, the attempt to rationalise it begins. People ask themselves all sorts of questions. They look for meanings and ponder why it ended when it did. They ask themselves if anything could have been done differently to make it come true. Finally, they tell themselves that the reality isn’t so bad after all, providing the consolation needed to sustain them until the moment they can dream again.
For over two months, between February 8 and April 27, Liverpool found themselves dreaming more vividly with every passing week. An astonishing run of 11 consecutive victories transformed a first league title in 24 years from a distant possibility into a prize only three matches and seven points away.
The past fortnight has constituted the rudest awakening possible: Steven Gerrard falling to his knees as Demba Ba skipped away into the distance, Jose Mourinho running down the Anfield touchline hollering and beating his chest in defiance, and Dwight Gayle completing the mother of all unlikely comebacks.
As they brace themselves for a Manchester City title win, Liverpool fans are beginning to reflect with pride on a season which has seen them rout Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United, score 99 goals and counting and leap from Premier League also-rans to thrilling title challengers.
There is a particularly cruel irony in the fact that the same attacking abandon which led this Liverpool team to the brink of a sensational triumph has ultimately proved their astonishing downfall. Despite his public bullishness, Brendan Rodgers will not escape the nagging feeling that just a little more caution and composure would have seen off a severely depleted Chelsea and carefree Crystal Palace.
Until his slip, Gerrard appeared to be leading his team with a guiding sense of destiny. Ever since, his increasingly wild long shots and over-ambitious passes have betrayed the desperation of a man convinced that this is his best and, at 34, possibly last chance to claim the winners' medal that is most noticeably absent from his glittering collection.
It is easy to see why. Liverpool have been brilliant but the stars have also aligned this season. United have mounted the most pathetic title defence of recent years while Arsenal succumbed to long-standing problems. Both City and Chelsea lost key men to injury and suspension for important games.
Meanwhile, the fact Rodgers’ men will play just 43 games thanks to a total lack of European commitments – six less than any previous Premier League title winner – has proven a unique and significant advantage, both in terms of preparation and freshness.
Next season will bring new challenges. The Champions League elevates a club in terms of finance and prestige but the demands it places on a squad are unrivalled. Liverpool will need to resolve their defensive weaknesses and add depth to their attacking strength or fall short at home and abroad.
It is a task which recent history suggests may not bring out the best in Rodgers, whose relationship with the rest of the club's 'Transfer Committee' remains an uneasy and not entirely productive one. Daniel Sturridge, signed despite the misgivings of the manager, has proved an inspired addition, but the likes of Fabio Borini, Tiago Ilori, Aly Cissokho, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto have contributed nothing to the team's rise. Champions League football opens the door to a higher calibre of player, but targets still need to be identified and agreed upon.
The summer may also bring the issue of Suarez's future bubbling back to the surface. The Uruguayan, whose genius has carried Liverpool to outrageous heights, signed a new contract in December and has spoken about the club in glowing terms ever since, but those familiar with his nature will not take his comments as binding. If Real Madrid match his release clause and he leaves, Rodgers will be forced to rebuild from a far more modest base.
Ultimately the biggest test could be one of character. Next season Rodgers and his team must shoulder the expectation of true contenders while battling the memories of this season's late collapse.
The campaign after failing to catch United in the title race, shorn of Xabi Alonso, Rafa Benitez's Liverpool plummeted to seventh in the table. In the 1991-92 season Sir Alex Ferguson's United themselves imploded, winning just five of their last 17 matches before being overhauled by bitter rivals Leeds United. A year later they were champions.
Liverpool must choose their own path. No less a man than the great Bill Shankly once insisted that "first is first, second is nowhere". If they are to dream again it is sorrow, not satisfaction, which they must channel in their hearts.