Losing to Chelsea on Sunday hurt. And it's supposed to hurt. Rationalising platitudes about where Liverpool are now compared to where they expected to be at the start of the season and a forced air of objectivity will, for some, be a coping mechanism, but behind their attempts to reason away Sunday's loss as though it doesn't much matter is that undeniable truth.
It's been 24 seasons since Liverpool last won the title. Without a bit of help from one of Everton, Aston Villa, or West Ham it will soon become 25. Liverpool have never been closer to breaking that streak, and the two times they came closest before—in 2002 under Gerard Houllier and 2009 under Rafa Benitez—showed that coming close is no guarantee of future success.
Even with Sunday's loss, though, this remains the closest Liverpool have ever been to winning the title since the Premier League was created. Even with the loss, this is the club's best chance to break that streak—may be their best chance at it for years to come. And so there cannot be pity. There must only be focus on bouncing back and beating Crystal Palace.
"Our objective is for ourselves," said Brendan Rodgers, looking for any kind of a silver lining following Sunday's painful 2-0 home defeat at the hand's of a Chelsea reserve squad that cost more than Liverpool's starting eleven. "We now need to win the two games and see where it takes us. We'll now focus on Crystal Palace and see where that takes us.
"I said how proud I was of [the players], because they were absolutely fantastic. We've been on a run of games and the games that we've won have been exceptional. To lose is obviously a big disappointment, because we haven't had many games that we have lost, but we'll take that on the chin. This is a great group of players, a very honest group, and we'll continue to work."
In 2008-09, a string of draws early in the season had Liverpool chasing Manchester United the rest of the way. It was a valiant effort to reach 86 points—as many as this season's Liverpool side can achieve by winning out—but in the end United still took the title by four points. The next season, a Liverpool squad that had seemed poised to challenge again finished seventh.
In 2001-02, Liverpool looked clear favourites in December but soon stumbled, leading to a four-way race. Though they recovered somewhat, Gerard Houllier's suggestion Liverpool were "ten games from greatness" turned out less than prophetic and they ended up in second, seven points shy of Arsenal. The next season, they finished fifth, failing to qualify for the Champions League.
Even with Sunday's loss, this season's Liverpool side are closer than ether was. They also seem well positioned for the future. Yet the same could have been said in 2002 and 2009. And so all that's left is to move past the disappointment, get the necessary results, and hope. Both for this season's challenge and also that, however it ends, this time around the club can find a way to build off it.
"Coming in on the bus was amazing," added Rodgers, taking the time to credit the supporters despite the disappointing result. "They can't do any more; they have done everything and done remarkably well for us. We're now going to need them in the final two games. They'll be disappointed like us, but we'll recover, we'll go again."
Recover. Go again. And hope.