And while it is the feeling of frustration that will likely linger, it remains an inescapable fact that Liverpool’s season was ultimately a rip-roaring, expectation-defying success.
From the initial off-field victory of keeping Luis Suarez from Arsenal’s green-eyed grasp, through the seemingly countless thrashings of fellow Premier League heavyweights, to the lightning development of the squad's vibrant and fearless English core, the accomplishments of Brendan Rodgers and his side are many.
Liverpool's climb from seventh-placed also-rans to final-day contenders in the space of a season is almost unprecedented in the modern era of English football, and the list of Reds players whose performances have exceeded all reasonable expectations is a lengthy one. Here, Goal looks at three of the club’s most impressive performers as Brendan Rodgers’ second year on Merseyside draws to a close.
LUIS SUAREZ | FORWARD
Simply put, Suarez has been the single most decisive factor in Liverpool's unparalleled improvement this season. He has already picked up a host of end-of-term awards, with most spectators in agreement that the Uruguayan is the country’s stand-out footballer.
The numbers certainly bear out the view. Without taking any of Liverpool’s 13 penalties, and having sat out the first five fixtures through suspension, Suarez scored the most goals (31) of any Premier League player – 10 more than his nearest challenger, strike partner Daniel Sturridge.
He was also only pipped to the top of the assists chart by captain Steven Gerrard on the season’s final day. He took the most shots in the Premier League, picked out the fifth most key passes and was the second most prolific dribbler and boasted the second-highest number of successful through balls. The Uruguayan has, in short, been a true all-rounder, showcasing every attacking skill and being startlingly efficient in his output.
While the arbitrary relationship between abusive behaviour and footballing excellence rather undermines any ‘personal redemption’ narrative, Suarez’s goals over the past season have certainly made up for the wasted chances and selfish play that too often blighted his early months at Anfield.
He has gone from being profligate to prodigious, from wasteful to wondrous. Part free-wheeling solo artist, part cold-blooded footsoldier, Suarez’s campaign has elevated him, in the eyes of many, to a level comparable with the previously untouchable Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is an accolade he has earned, but also one that Liverpool fans will be concerned might have him casting his eyes around the continent for prospective new employers. It could well be another long and arduous summer.
STEVEN GERRARD | MIDFIELDER
The irony of Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea not only lies in the wording of his now-famous on-pitch team talk a fortnight previously, but also in the fact that the Liverpool captain has, time after time, year upon year, been the man who has dragged his side to its feet when all around him were wilting.
In some ways this season was a welcome exception to the rule, while in others it was exactly the same. The increased quality of his colleagues meant that Gerrard’s all-action, high-anxiety style could finally be dialled down, but the England captain nonetheless stepped up to the plate with typical authority when it was most required.
Most impressive among his many endeavours was the way his interpretation of the captaincy changed, from taking on the responsibility of 11 men, to prompting and encouraging his team-mates to assume their share.
Ten penalties were converted – not least high-pressure spot-kicks against Fulham, Manchester United and West Ham during that astonishing eleven-game winning streak – with three goals also coming from open play, including one to open the scoring in Anfield’s Merseyside derby thrashing of Everton.
His two rasping deliveries to turn the season’s final fixture against Newcastle on its head may have been ultimately futile but they took him to the top of the Premier League’s assists table.
And while Gerrard’s long-standing struggles with positional discipline were finally overcome with a shift into a deep-lying playmaking role, his trademark eye-catching play was still used to good effect: no midfielder managed more accurate long balls.
The image of Demba Ba striding gaily towards the Kop and into acres of open grass will likely haunt the Liverpool skipper’s dreams for a long time to come, but he can console himself with the fact that his exemplary displays had helped cause, catalyse and continue the most improbable title challenge of the last two decades.
JORDAN HENDERSON | MIDFIELDER
While it is Liverpool’s attacking stars who, along with their captain, drew the most plaudits over the season, there is a good argument to be made that the unfashionable, underrated midfielder chugging about behind them was in fact the team’s one and only truly irreplaceable player.
History will inevitably remember Steven Gerrard’s scrambling slip against Chelsea as the point at which the momentum swung decisively away from Liverpool – such is the power of symbolism. But an equally pivotal moment occurred a fortnight earlier, when Jordan Henderson was sent off amid the frenzy that was Manchester City’s visit to Anfield.
At the point of the Wearsider’s momentary loss of discipline, Liverpool sat top of the league, with the side’s defence, shielded by his abundant energy, then limited to conceding 1.2 goals per game.
During Henderson's ensuing three-game suspension his team's title challenge was derailed, with the already leaky backline more than doubling its rate of concession to 2.6 goals per game in his absence, culminating with an absurd capitulation at Selhurst Park.
It is hard to quantify the influence of Henderson over the season as his impact has often been to provide different things at different times. With Gerrard sidelined in the winter it was Henderson who shouldered creative responsibility from midfield, providing a vital link to the attack and urging Liverpool on with promptings from the centre circle and sparking what were arguably the season’s two best performances: at White Hart Lane and the Etihad Stadium.
During Liverpool’s blistering run into the business end of the season, Henderson constantly provided the unstylish but crucial service of pressing high and passing simple. It is no understatement to say that many Anfield regulars fully expect – and would be supremely pleased to see – Henderson take the captain’s armband once Gerrard finally decides to relinquish it. He has been a quiet revelation this season.