Whether Liverpool are victorious in their title battle or not, this season will have undoubtedly been a successful one for the club. Champions League football will almost certainly be returning to Anfield after several years of absence, and the club appear to be on an inexorable rise regardless.
Liverpool dropped out of the Champions League after the 2009-10 season, which seems a world away from their current situation. Their problems back then stemmed from a multitude of issues, ranging from blood-sucking American ownership to more historical defects, reaching back into the annals of history, but that season in particular still came as great shock: they suffered a disastrous campaign and finished seventh, which was behind Aston Villa, and only two places ahead of Alex McLeish's Birmingham City.
Such a multi-faceted catastrophe didn't come out of the blue. The club was in obvious decline, as a glance at any contemporary season previews will attest. The BBC's prediction for each side claimed:
Liverpool's title hopes rest on manager Rafael Benitez refusing to become distracted by Manchester United, as he did so pointlessly last season, and on the well-being of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
If this world-class pair stay fit and play in the manner that propelled Liverpool so beautifully through the last three months of last season, then all the optimism and expectation is justified, despite a stuttering pre-season.
Ah. Well, what do state media companies know, anyway? Let's go to someone who's never afraid to speak his mind and see what he had to say.
Piers Morgan: My prediction? Torres will fire Liverpool to the title to give Old Grumpy something to moan about.
But that's only Piers Morgan. What does that simpleton know about anything? Let's try a proper newspaper instead. Nah, not even the Guardian, let's go right into the Tory press. Over to the Telegraph.
If last season provided their best title chance for almost 20 years, this time should be even better. For different reasons, Manchester United and Chelsea are more vulnerable, while Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres should be at their peak.
Alright, that's enough of that. You get the idea. Nobody saw Liverpool's fall from grace coming. But why was everybody so blind?
In short, it's partly for the same reason that some talking heads have been queuing up to herald a Scouse title victory as the choice of the neutrals. As one other writer not far from here wrote, this sort of thing is "what happens when you lock previously rational human beings in a dark press box and feed them nothing but narrative for years." And football has an anti-rational streak at its very heart -- following a team is simply not a logical thing for a human being to do. The romanticism of a fallen giant returning to their glory days still holds a lot of sway.
A large part of the English football psyche, much like England generally, has never really left 1995. The reasons for that are beyond the remit of this column, but it was a world in which the current Liverpool side, with its strike partnerships, hubristic British manager, direct football and obvious star player would make a great deal of sense. Daniel Sturridge arriving at the far post in front of the Kop could just as easily be Stan Collymore. For that reason they have a certain appeal to those of us who, for whatever reason, do not despise the club and all who sail in it with all the bile we can muster. Now as then, they are being hyped up.
But while we might all do our best to ignore rationality, it has an impudent habit of making its presence felt regardless. In the hangover of a victory or defeat in the title race, Liverpool will still need to take stock of what went wrong, and what needs to be done to prepare for what will undoubtedly be a much more difficult campaign next season.
Alex Livesey / Getty Images
In 2009, Liverpool thought they had their golden ticket in Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, just as they might be tempted to do now with Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. It caused them to neglect the less obvious parts of the team, finally shifting off Xabi Alonso -- a man Rafael Benitez had attempted to replace with Gareth Barry -- in favour of Alberto Aquilani, an often injured player who was far from guaranteed to adapt to the league. Resources were far more stretched, but there was still a heavy reluctance to look facts in the face, and their failure to reinforce was extraordinarily costly.
This time, their most obvious weakness is their defence, and it will have to be addressed if they want to genuinely bring back the golden age. Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Simon Mignolet's positions are all up for question, while the fullback positions could also do with being looked at. The declining Lucas and Steven Gerrard are also doubtful going into another campaign, and there is also the need for a large increase in squad depth to cope with the extra demands of European football, the absence of which has helped the club prevail with a tiny squad. Arsenal's fate predictably came in their nightmare February-April run, but a purely domestic schedule allowed Liverpool to avoid such a gauntlet.
Problems could emerge from without, as well as within, too. The fight for fourth will likely end up being much tamer than it might have been owing to managerial incompetence and upheavel at Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, with the latter at least bound to be far superior next season. Liverpool can content themselves with the fact that they were not really expected to challenge for the title this season and that fourth place was the aim, and realise that they have been opportunistic and will do well to consolidate their current position for next season.
If Liverpool want to succeed and press on, whether they win the league or not, they will have to recognise that hype for what it was and take a cold, analytical stare at their current situation and recognise what works and will last, what was sheer luck, and what was an unsustainable run of good form which cannot be relied upon. A failure to do that in 2009 saw a humiliating fall from grace and an extended stay in a wilderness far beyond their previous lows. If they don't do so again now, they could well suffer the same fate.