LONDON (Reuters) - Liverpool’s attempt to dethrone Manchester City as Premier League champions ended in glorious failure on Sunday, but at least Juergen Klopp’s side proved what was possible.
As for Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester United — the quartet who ended up in an undistinguished tussle for third and fourth spots — a summer of navel-gazing awaits.
In running away with last season’s title in record-breaking fashion, amassing 100 points and 106 goals in the process, Manchester City raised the bar into the stratosphere.
Liverpool, aided by spectacular success in the transfer market, responded and, having finished 25 points behind City in fourth place last season, have scaled new heights, finishing an agonising one adrift with a huge 97 points — an unthinkable total for a side ending without the trophy.
With a manager idolised by the fans and a squad with potential to get even better, they look entrenched as City’s rivals for the foreseeable future.
For the rest of the top six it has been a story of stagnation or regression — for a variety of reasons — and it is hard to see the City-Liverpool duopoly being broken.
Chelsea finished third, 26 points behind and even if they did manage two more points than last season, Mauricio Sarri’s first campaign has been a rocky one at times.
His so-called Sarri-ball tactics have not suited the likes of N’Golo Kante and the team has relied too heavily on Eden Hazard, who looks poised to leave Stamford Bridge.
Hopes of significant strengthening in the summer have been hit by FIFA’s transfer embargo.
Tottenham’s late-season Premier League collapse saw them go from outside title contenders to scrambling into fourth spot.
Incredibly, they have reached the Champions League final but whatever happens against Liverpool in Madrid on June 1 they face a critical summer ahead.
There are signs that manager Mauricio Pochettino has grown weary of fighting for the Premier League title without the tools that Pep Guardiola and Juergen Klopp have at their disposal.
The Argentine performed wonders again this season after the club went two consecutive transfer windows without signing a player — but he appeared to send out a warning this week.
“I am not open to start a new chapter with no plan, with no clear idea,” Pochettino said on Friday. “If you do not make a plan, if you don’t anticipate things, when you crash you crash.”
For the third successive season Arsenal finished outside the top four, although Unai Emery did manage seven more points in his first season than Arsene Wenger did in his last.
They could yet squeeze into the Champions League by beating Chelsea in the Europa League final but Emery has not rid Arsenal of the frailties that marked the latter Wenger years.
Arsenal lost eight times on the road and a defence propped up by 33-year-old Laurent Koscielny looks in need of major surgery after conceding 51 goals.
Their attack remains potent with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang forming a deadly duo on their day, but allowing the inspirational midfielder Aaron Ramsey to join Juventus this summer looks careless.
But while Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal have plenty of work to do over the summer, the biggest challenge will be faced by Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer whose side ended a dismal season in embarrassing fashion, losing 2-0 at home to Cardiff City who were already relegated.
The record 20-times English champions have had to stomach watching Liverpool and Manchester City, their two fiercest rivals, disappear into the distance playing the kind of football United once did at the height of Alex Ferguson’s reign.
When Jose Mourinho claimed leading the United squad to second last season was one of his best achievements, many mocked the Portuguese. That claim now looks valid.
United have played like a team of disconnected individuals for most of the season, apart from a spectacular burst of form when they won 14 of 17 matches in all competitions after Mourinho was sacked and Solskjaer took the controls.
The bounce did not last and United ended the season dispirited and lacking identity. It is hard to make a case for one United player getting a look in at Liverpool or City.
United fans will demand an improvement next season but Solskjaer urged a dose of reality.
“I’m an optimist but I don’t think (a title challenge) is realistic, because the two teams now at the top of the table they are far ahead of the chasing pack,” he said.
Pochettino, Sarri and Emery may well share that sentiment.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis