DESPITE suggestions to the contrary, Liverpool have not been knocked off their perch. They have merely been joined on it by their greatest rivals.
The combination of almost two decades of stagnation at this end of the M62 and ruthless progression and trophy gathering at the other end mean Liverpool are now having to share their League title winning record with Manchester United.
At 18-all, the race has already begun to be first to number 19 and the challenge now for Liverpool is to ensure they don’t come up with yet another false start as they have done in every season since 1990.
Having come as close as they have done in any season since their last title-winning year, Rafa Benitez and his players can take a great deal of satisfaction from a campaign which has delivered considerable progress even if silverware is again conspicuous only by its absence.
Close but no cigar is never going to be good enough at Anfield though, particularly when it is Alex Ferguson and co who are getting to puff their way through box after box of Cuba’s finest.
If Liverpool exists to win trophies – as the oft-repeated mantra suggests it does – then the inquest and introspection into why the club’s still unbettered cup collection has not been added to for a third successive year should already be underway.
In both the Premier League and the Champions League the Reds have gone out on their shield, fighting all the way to the bitter end and leaving the hearts of their fans swollen with pride if not by success.
But the harsh truth is that in both of the major competitions they have fallen just short and there is an inescapable feeling that in some respects they were architects of their own downfall.
As arch enemy Gary Neville graciously pointed out after collecting the Premier League trophy, Liverpool’s form during the run-in has been of the title-winning type.
Yesterday’s victory at The Hawthorns which sent West Bromwich Albion back to whence they came was Liverpool’s ninth in their last 10 games with the only interruption to what would otherwise have been a perfect 10 being that incredible 4-4 draw with Arsenal.
It was also their 13th victory on the road, equaling a club record which was set 104 years ago.
Had they had similar success at home then at the very least Liverpool would be heading into the final weekend of the campaign with their title dreams still alive.
The table doesn’t lie though – it didn’t when the Reds dominated and it doesn’t now – and the Anfield outfit will end the season in second place because that is where they deserve to be.
Had they bought better last summer then who knows how much their chances would have been boosted and the fact that none of the signings who were brought in during those crucial months started yesterday’s game tells its own story.
Football is full of ‘if only’ stories though, and as ever it is the winners who make history and the losers are left to make excuses and look for reasons why it hasn’t been their year.
Liverpool cannot afford to allow themselves to become too downbeat though because they have now given themselves a platform to build from which has not been in place for far too long.
The 83 points they currently boast is the most they have ever garnered in a Premier League season and the fact that their title chances lasted until the third weekend of May is indicative of the giant strides that have been made.
In recent weeks they have imperiously swatted aside inferior opponent after inferior opponent and even though they let their standards slip somewhat against West Brom they still had far too much quality for a side which will look forward to trips to Bloomfield Road and Home Park next season instead of Anfield and Old Trafford.
The gulf in class was illustrated most vividly by Liverpool’s opening goal with the hapless Shelton Martis gifting the ball to Steven Gerrard and the Footballer of the Year scored with aplomb.
Both sides had decent penalty shouts turned down before Dirk Kuyt ended the game as a contest with a powerful strike from the edge of the box.
There was a slackness to some of Liverpool’s defensive work which would have caused them problems against just about any other side in the division but there was more chance of Benitez congratulating Alex Ferguson than there was of West Brom hitting the target.
At times Jamie Carragher seemed to be the only member of the Reds’ back line who was totally tuned in and his frustration at the chances that Liverpool were conceding boiled over in a set-to with teammate Alvaro Arbeloa that neither will look back too fondly upon today.
Things like that happen on the football pitch though. Passions can come to the surface all too easily when an all consuming will to win has not been satisfied and if the Liverpool players are as hurt by the thought of being second best, as Carragher’s reaction suggests, then that can only be a good thing – provided it is harnessed in a more positive fashion.
There should be pain at Anfield this week and it should be even more acute because Liverpool will always look back on this season with thoughts of what might have been.
Had the summer recruitment drive been more impressive, had away wins at Fulham, West Ham and Hull been matched at home, had the heroics of the Bernabeu been followed up by a similar showing at the Riverside, then Liverpool could have been champions.
These are the differences between success and failure and as long as the reasons for them are identified by Benitez and his staff and acted upon in the weeks and months to come then there is every chance that Liverpool could go one better next season.
Massive strides have been made and the challenge now is to make that one small step that could see them back on their perch looking down on everyone else, including their great rivals from Old Trafford.
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