Liverpool’s failure to qualify for the Champions League means…what, exactly?

A year ago, Liverpool was a title contender. Not exactly favorites, but with a month to go the Reds were part of a triumvirate battling for first. With its ultimate second-place finish, Liverpool was back.

And now it’s gone again.

In the space of a year Liverpool went from title contenders to out of Champions League contention. Sunday’s draw leaves the side six points back of fourth-place Manchester United, with two matches left to play. And even if the Reds could manage to win two while the Red Devils lost two, Liverpool would also have to make up a 14-goal difference. Their season is, for all intents and purposes, over*.

* Unless you’re a Liverpool fan who puts a lot of value in making the Europa League, in which case you gave up on your club a long time ago.

Liverpool was always going to have trouble after Luis Suárez left, depsite Brendan Rodgers claiming his purchases would more than make up for the loss of the Uruguayan. When the season started, the talk out of Anfield was that of a team still intent on challenging for the title. That changed quickly.

The club shelled out 20 million pounds for Dejan Lovren, who turned out to be an outright disaster, and Liverpool’s already shaky defense proved even worse with the Croatian. Lazar Marković, another 20 million purchase, didn’t make a huge impact either, Alberto Moreno did little to help at the back, and the 16 million pounds spent on Mario Balotelli looks a waste. The only signings who really made an impact were Adam Lallana and Emre Can, but even Lallana wasn’t so good that he justified his price.

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In all, Liverpool spent 117 million pounds in transfer fees alone last year, and got little in return. From the start the squad looked poor, losing three of its first five matches, and while Liverpool managed an undefeated October, it then lost the first three matches of November. By the time December came around, it looked out of the race for the top four.

The Reds improved as the season went on, even managing to go 12 matches without a loss, but just when nearing the top seemed feasible, Manchester United and Arsenal claimed six straight points. Liverpool had a chance to show it was as good as the best teams in the league – and failed.

All the while, Liverpool’s return to the Champions League was a disaster, finishing third in the group, winning just one match and being beaten out for a knockout stage place by Basel. The drop to the Europa League saw Liverpool fall in penalties to Besiktas too, and the FA and League Cup runs ended in the semifinals.

So what do we make of Liverpool? A club that looked set for such great things a year ago, be it challenging for titles, a return to the Champions League, or at least a regular place in the top four for years to come. Now it’s trophy-less and in fifth place at best.

It’s not really clear what the Reds are. Liverpool likes to think it’s a big club, but without the Champions League to offer, signing stars this summer will be a challenge. Rodgers’ star has dimmed a bit, having experimented with several formations, odd tactics and put players in new positions to mixed results. Oh, and it’s likely to lose Raheem Sterling this summer, too.

Maybe no club outside the relegation fight is in as much limbo as Liverpool. We know what the club can be, or at least we can see the bright future that it had us pondering a year ago. But we know it can also be a disappointment, wasteful in the transfer market, befuddling on the pitch and potentially driving its best young player out of the club. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, but after the roller coaster ride of the last year, nothing seems certain anymore. Liverpool could challenge for the title – or it could go into freefall.

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