The competitiveness of the two-legged League Cup semi-final with Chelsea was both reassuring and infuriating for Liverpool.
It was a glimpse of what can be for Brendan Rodgers’ side in the near future, but also of what should and could have been all season rather than the last few months.
The difference between the clubs was all too apparent at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea enhanced their chances of winning trophies on the day they signed Diego Costa, while Liverpool undermined theirs when they failed to replace Luis Suarez.
It comes down to the goals. It is always about the goals.
Jose Mourinho is a more successful manager than 12 months ago because he has Costa instead of Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o; and Rodgers’ stock fell during this campaign because he has Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini instead of Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
There, ladies and gents, is your analysis of the season. Draw a line through every under conclusion. Everything else about respective coaching abilities, man-management skills or team selection is peripheral. The proof is there in blue and red and white. One great signing can make all the difference, and it can take four months to recover from a lousy one.
Rodgers has not yet beaten Mourinho as a manager but he finished above him in the Premier League last season armed with his SOS. Did this make Rodgers a superior coach to his former mentor?
Of course not, because Mourinho ensured Chelsea went closer to the title than seemed plausible with a squad every bit as imbalanced and bereft of a natural goalscorer as Liverpool’s right now. He still won nothing last season and moved to fix the problem.
Liverpool can weave enough pretty patterns to earn a place on the Great Sewing Bee, but they’ve had scant reward for their recent enterprising performances with far too many draws. Their two last defeats – at Chelsea and Manchester United – were a direct consequence of their lack of a finisher.
Costa did not score in either leg against Liverpool, but he’s been transformative at Stamford Bridge. Let the moral guardians indulge in the predictable sermons about Costa’s behaviour as much as they wish. Who cares if the Chelsea striker now has more stamps to his name than Phileas Fogg’s passport, any manager – or supporters –would prefer a demon upfront to deadweight.
Liverpool’s transfer committee has taken a battering for signing Balotelli but they earned themselves credit in the eyes of John W. Henry when they urged the club to make a move for Costa 18 months ago, even if Chelsea’s close relationship with Atletico Madrid and the player’s representative made it a futile gesture. It showed they do know a top quality striker when they see one, despite the evidence of last summer.
Tuesday night was tough on Rodgers, who has adapted his personnel expertly despite the club's (self-inflicted) lack of firepower. No matter how good the coach – and Rodgers has consistently proven himself capable of getting the most out of his playing resources – it is goalscorers who define successful eras.
Arsene Wenger was a better manager when he had Thierry Henry; Carlo Ancelotti looks flawless with Cristiano Ronaldo; Pep Guardiola was a genius when he could pick Lionel Messi.
The credit goes to those who can spot the talent and shape a team to get the most out of the extraordinary players at their disposal, but what separates the best from the rest is how they ensure a seamless transition when their prized assets move on or lose their edge.
That’s where Alex Ferguson consistently excelled, his success at Manchester United built on his annual talent grabs. You can talk about the resources at his disposal, but enough have squandered millions before and since to prove cash is no guarantee of success.
From Mark Hughes to Eric Cantona, through to Andy Cole, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, Ferguson ensured his side was never bereft of firepower. United always seemed prepared for the next high profile striker departure.
Liverpool’s failure on Tuesday night can be traced back to July when they signed a lost soul and wrongly believed it would not be a lost cause, thus ensuring their best line-up for the past few months had no striker. They’ve gone from being a dominant force close to winning the title to a plucky loser.
There is enough promise to suggest it could be different a year from now. Witness Can, the young German who has slotted in as centre-back with such expertise it is bewildering he was described as a midfielder rather than a defender. Merit marks all round for the recruiters, there.
But if Liverpool are to get closer to the Premier League leaders over the next 12 months as Rodgers predicted, they must learn from and admire how Chelsea and Mourinho have gone about turning their side into potential champions.
Rather than waste time and energy loathing the personnel who have taken Chelsea to Wembley at their expense, Liverpool should be working overtime to find another cunning, prolific scoundrel of their own to play upfront.