The events of the past week have set up an exciting summer in the Premier League, but first, will Spurs leave it late on the final day? And Benitez deserves lots of credit...
Despite Gareth Bale's late winner against Southampton, victories for Arsenal and Chelsea made it a terrible weekend for Spurs. Meanwhile, the race is tightening at the bottom...
Well, there was really only one winner at the weekend, with Liverpool finally getting the monkey off their back with a first victory over a team in the top ten, albeit too late to significantly impact on their season and against a Swansea side distracted by this week's League Cup final.
The Reds were impressive in their 5-0 thrashing of the Swans, but their Champions League pursuit was effectively ended by the 2-0 defeat to West Brom and with 11 matches remaining they stand nine points behind Spurs, who have a game in hand, and nine above the bottom half. Sunday's performance brought welcome relief after a disappointing week at home and in Europe, but it also told the story of Liverpool's season as they turned on when the pressure was off.
Brendan Rodgers has bemoaned his team's lack of consistency this year (although he also praised their "terrific run" of one win in five matches before the West Brom defeat), and that problem is inextricably linked to the Reds' startling lack of efficiency. The 5-0 victory over Swansea was Liverpool's seventh by three goals or more in the Premier League, while Manchester United have only managed three wins by the same margin yet sit 26 points higher.
That Spurs have also mastered the single-goal margin - winning eight games by a solitary strike so far - paints a compelling picture of why they sit in fourth and why next year will have to be Liverpool's year. The Reds have brushed aside most teams in the bottom half of the table but have struggled to grind out wins against better opposition, with Rodgers' game plan simply not having the desired effect.
Our good friends at WhoScored wrote an interesting article investigating Liverpool's woes against teams in the top half of the table here, which revealed that before Sunday the longest series of passes the team had managed in the lead up to a goal against a top-ten opponent was four in the 2-2 draw at Everton. And even then they only scored through a Leighton Baines own goal.
Rodgers' biggest achievement at Anfield is undoubtedly his transformation of Liverpool's attacking fortunes and the team have scored 19 more goals than at this stage last year. But while only three teams have scored more than the Reds' 48 league strikes, their goals-per-game average of just 1.2 against teams in the top ten (incidentally, the same as last season) continues to highlight the stumbling block they have struggled with throughout the campaign.
Despite these evident problems, Liverpool showed no signs of mental fragility in their recent performances against Arsenal and Manchester City, which hinted at a gradual improvement. But those two fixtures, along with the victory over Swansea, underline two further puzzles for Rodgers to solve, with the spectre of profligacy continuing to lurk and defensive displays slipping.
Profligacy was often cited for the Reds' struggles under Kenny Dalglish last season, and their failure to take several excellent chances against Arsenal and City showed that, while the team have been a stronger attacking force in the current campaign, wasteful finishing has still allowed crucial victories to slip through their grasp.
Against a weakened Swansea team on Sunday, the margins were less fine and so Liverpool weren't punished for hitting the target with only ten of their 35 attempts - a Premier League record this season. Michael Laudrup said in his post-match interview that it should have been 10-0 and Rodgers already knows how costly his team's wayward shooting can be, with 25 shots against West Brom resulting in only seven on target and a 2-0 victory for the opposition.
When this consideration is combined with Liverpool's defensive decline, it isn't hard to see why they have struggled to eke out the narrow victories that could have secured a return to the top four. Only West Brom have conceded more goals in the top half of the table, with Liverpool also eight strikes leakier than at this stage last season. Rodgers has dropped Martin Skrtel for the last five Premier League fixtures, but with six goals conceded in that period it's clear the Slovakian isn't the only player underperforming.
All this boils down to a rather disjointed and inconsistent team and season, and it's little surprise that Liverpool's best winning streak in the Premier League this campaign is only three matches. The reverse of fortunes from defensive stability to attacking freedom (against the bottom half at least) underlines the difficulties Rodgers faces as he attempts to 'build an aircraft while it's flying'.
At the moment it's far too early to gauge how much the Reds have improved under Rodgers. They have certainly looked far more convincing in attack this year, but then Dalglish didn't have Luis Suarez available for eight matches last season. Perhaps the most important point is that Liverpool have the exact same points total at this stage and unless they can overcome the hurdle of grinding out wins against their rivals in the top ten, they'll continue to remain at the fringes of interest.
Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez
Although Liverpool's new strike partnership is still in its infancy, it's clear that Suarez and Sturridge have already struck up an excellent understanding. With Sturridge selected in the centre against Swansea, Suarez was afforded the freedom to play to his strengths and buzz across the forward line, harrying defenders and seeking to exploit the many gaps. Both forwards possess exceptional movement and, considering Liverpool have averaged an incredible three goals per game in Sturridge's five appearances so far, there is genuine encouragement for the future should Suarez remain at the club in the summer.
Along with Sturridge, Coutinho appears to be another impressive purchase, with Liverpool's £8.5million outlay for the 20-year-old Brazil international offering little risk. Coutinho will certainly have enjoyed his appearance on Sunday more than his brief cameo against West Brom and the playmaker's well-taken goal opened the floodgates as Swansea capitulated at the start of the second half. There's plenty more to come from Coutinho, that's for sure.
The captain continued his record of playing every minute of Liverpool's league season thus far and grabbed his seventh goal of the campaign from the penalty spot. Considering Gerrard only managed five top-flight strikes last season, and has also recorded his joint-highest total of nine assists this year, it's safe to say talk of his decline has been greatly exaggerated.
After his claim that Liverpool gave a 'near-perfect' away performance in their 2-0 defeat to Zenit St. Petersburg on Thursday, the manager was much more restrained in his post-match reaction.
"I am an optimist, you have to be, but we'll not get too carried away," said Rodgers.
"I've likened us to a marathon runner just getting ready for the finish line, ready to make our move, and then we trip ourselves up.
"That is something we have to change going forward for the remainder of the season and finish as strong as we can."
The manager must also be careful not to trip himself up with what he says to the press. After speaking of the gap to second place ahead of facing Villa on December 17, Liverpool were embarrassed by a 3-1 defeat at Anfield and it was a similar story against West Brom following Rodgers' claims that fourth was within the Reds' grasp. Rodgers is right to be optimistic, but he has set himself up for a fall on too many occasions this season.
A horribly unfortunate injury that ends a rather unhappy first season at Liverpool for the striker.
Still very much out of the manager's plans in the Premier League.
Vorm has struggled to replicate last season's form and he is likely to lose his place in the starting line-up for the League Cup final to the impressive Gerhard Tremmel. The Dutchman's error for Coutinho's goal certainly won't have helped his cause.
Sent on to try and change the scoreline, conceded a daft penalty, 5-0 Liverpool.
The manager's seven changes to the team that hammered QPR 4-1 played a significant role in Swansea's sorry defeat. Laudrup faced a difficult decision over who to start ahead of Sunday's League Cup final against Bradford, but he will be disappointed with how uncompetitive his team were against a Liverpool side they have already beaten 3-1 at Anfield this year.
"I mean there were a lot of good players in there and even the ones who have maybe not playing regularly, the last two, two-and-a-half months we've been changing regularly between those 19/20 players and we've always been competitive," said Laudrup after the match.
"Today nothing - it's the first game where I've seen that for a long, long, long time, I think since September.
Garry Monk and Kyle Bartley
Hardly an ideal audition to deputise for the injured Chico in the League Cup final.
The striker didn't manage a single shot in his 14th appearance without scoring for Swansea. It doesn't look like they'll be taking up the option to make his loan move permanent.
Swansea 46mins - 56mins
Possibly the worst ten-minute spell of any team in any match in the Premier League this season. Quite simply, they were bobbins.
Every glance at the league table is a reminder of just how appalling they have been this season despite spending a fortune on players.
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.
Ha ha I do believe F365 is displaying some of its wit, giving Liverpool free reign of Wnners and Losers column when there's only one match. Good one, I can see the joke there (especially at the expense of the usual whingers). Keep up the good work.- wrightstuff76