Resurgent Liverpool rues missed opportunity
LIVERPOOL, England (AP) This should have been a season remembered by Liverpool for the scoring prowess of Luis Suarez, the dazzling wing play of Raheem Sterling, the blossoming of Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson, the successful repositioning of Steven Gerrard and the attacking verve that made the team the most exciting to watch in the country.
Instead, Liverpool's 2013-14 campaign is likely to be etched in the history books as the year it threw away the Premier League title.
The images that no doubt will be revived in the months and years to come are Gerrard's costly slip against Chelsea and Suarez's tears after the late collapse against Crystal Palace.
It is those two matches in the run-in - when five points were dropped and the initiative in the title race swung back toward Manchester City - that ultimately cost Liverpool the chance of a first English championship since 1990.
Look at the bigger picture, though, and it has been a year to savor for Liverpool fans.
Liverpool finished seventh in the Premier League last year and wasn't expected to be in contention for the title this season, especially since its main summer purchase was Iago Aspas - a striker unknown outside Spanish football circles. The offseason had been dominated by headlines surrounding the possible exit of the unsettled Suarez who, amid interest from Arsenal, had publicly attacked the club for allegedly reneging on a deal to let him leave.
There were signs toward the end of the 2012-13 season that the methods and philosophy of manager Brendan Rodgers were beginning to bear fruit - but few can have predicted the progress Liverpool has made over the last eight months.
With no European football to clog up its schedule and early elimination from both domestic cup competitions, Liverpool had just the league to concentrate on all season, giving the team a huge advantage over City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham.
After beating great rival United to make it three wins from Liverpool's first three games - all of them 1-0 - Rodgers was asked in the post-match news conference if the team could be a possible title contender. He stifled a laugh of incredulity. But he had a look in his eye that signaled Liverpool meant business this season.
So did Suarez. After missing the first six matches while serving out his ban for biting held over from the previous season, the Uruguay international exploded onto the scene by scoring 19 goals in 13 matches before Christmas to help put Liverpool top of the standings on Dec. 25. Four of those goals came in one match against Norwich, arguably the best individual display of the season, and he ended up with 31 goals and the English Player of the Year award.
The last four Christmas Day leaders went on to lift the trophy in May but Liverpool couldn't maintain that streak, despite losing just once in the league in 2014.
That 2-0 home loss to Chelsea - after a run of 11 straight wins - came in heartbreaking fashion for Liverpool, sparked by a slip by Gerrard that let in Demba Ba for the opener. Then, nine days later, Liverpool conceded three goals in the last 11 minutes to draw 3-3 at Palace and leave a disconsolate Suarez in tears.
With City finishing the season like an unstoppable train, there was no way back for Liverpool, whose defense proved vulnerable when it mattered most.
Liverpool, however, has so many reasons to be positive. After the gloom and financial instability of the Hicks and Gillett era, the 18-time league champions are back on a solid footing with a new set of American owners and have a manager in Rodgers who appears capable of restoring the fortunes of a club that was England's biggest in the 1970s and `80s.
Not only has Rodgers worked wonders with the small budget and the weakest squad of all the title contenders, he has demonstrated a tactical astuteness - changing formations to great effect during matches, for example - and adopted an attacking approach that has once again earned Liverpool admirers from all over the world.
In Suarez, Liverpool has one of the world's best players who is unlikely to agitate for a move this offseason as the team is back in the Champions League after a four-year absence. And in Gerrard, it has a wonderful leader and ambassador who revels in his new `quarterback' position in front of the back four.
Perhaps most important of all, there are smiles back on the faces of Liverpool fans, who have reconnected with the team during its improbable tilt at the title. For the final few home matches of the season, supporters have lined the streets around Anfield before kickoff, cheering the players in on the team bus and waving flags and scarves to revive memories of the glory days.
Just imagine what it will be like if Liverpool manages to go on and win the league next season.
''It's been incredible to see the supporters, to see the power of the club, the institution that is Liverpool. And we've made them dream,'' Rodgers said Sunday. ''That's our job to do that. And we will improve. We'll be ready to fight again, but now we've got the belief.''
The team missed a great opportunity this season, but even better times appear to be around the corner under Rodgers.