LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Back in the Champions League and back in the Premier League title conversation, Liverpool has come a long way in a short time under Brendan Rodgers.
Yet, to satisfy the lofty expectations of one of England's two biggest clubs, it's time for Liverpool to make the next step.
And that means winning trophies.
After finishing eighth in 2012 and seventh in 2013, Liverpool made a giant leap last season by pushing Manchester City all the way in the title race and coming up just short, two points behind in second place. And it could have been so much better — the team held a five-point lead with three matches remaining, only to stumble with a first championship since 1990 in reach.
Going one better this season is the aim, but it will be tough — especially with their best player no longer around.
Luis Suarez, the Premier League's top scorer with 31 goals last season, was sold to Barcelona for $130 million, leaving a huge hole in Liverpool's squad.
Rodgers has spent the proceeds of Suarez's sale on a string of signings — Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert have arrived from Southampton, exciting winger Lazar Markovic joined from Benfica and holding midfielder Emre Can moved from Bayer Leverkusen. With Belgium striker Divock Origi joining from Lille for 10 million pounds ($17 million) but spending this season on loan at the French club, Liverpool's outlay is almost 100 million pounds ($170 million).
Yet, Lambert will be the only new striker in the squad and, at 32, is hardly an adequate replacement for Suarez. It means most of the attacking burden will be placed on Daniel Sturridge, now England's No. 1 striker but prone to injuries.
There is also the fear among some pundits that Liverpool could go the way of Tottenham, which brought in a slew of players on the back of selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid last summer but failed to find the right mix and balance. Avoiding falling into that trap will be one of Rodgers' biggest tasks.
In a sense, Liverpool had it easy last season. There was no European football to clog up the schedule and the team was eliminated early from the two cup competitions. The Reds could concentrate on their league challenge, playing just one game a week and getting away with having a lack of depth in their squad.
That won't be the case this season.
But in Rodgers, Liverpool has one of the brightest managers in English football and he has done nothing but impress since taking over in the summer of 2012. He is tactically astute, changing formations to great effect from match to match as well as during games, and has adopted an attacking style that is fun to watch and overwhelmed many opponents last season.
He also has the backing of the fans and his club's hierarchy.
"We will improve," Rodgers said after the final game of last season. "We'll be ready to fight again. Now we've got the belief."
Captain Steven Gerrard has retired from international football and can devote all his energy to Liverpool, where he starred in the midfield quarterback role last season. And attacking midfielders Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling should only get better.
There is much to be excited about among Liverpool fans — not least a return to the Champions League for the first time since the 2009-10 season — but losing Suarez, and failing to replace him with a player close to his ilk, is likely to prevent them making that step up to title winners.
In: Adam Lallana (Southampton), Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Lazar Markovic (Benfica), Divock Origi (Lille), Emre Can (Bayer Leverkusen), Rickie Lambert (Southampton), Javier Manquillo (Atletico Madrid).
Out: Luis Suarez (Barcelona), Luis Alberto (Malaga on loan), Iago Aspas (Sevilla on loan), Andre Wisdom (West Bromwich Albion on loan).