Liverpool will struggle to make Premier League top four

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Liverpool fans optimistically hoping for an improvement on last season's exploits are already setting unrealistic expectations for Brendan Rodgers's side in 2014/15. Their chances of claiming a maiden Premier League title in the forthcoming campaign ended with the £75 million sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona, and now the Reds will be lucky to finish in the top four.

Despite a significant outlay of more than £90 million on six new players, the truth is that Liverpool will be feared less by their opponents this term having failed to make the same leaps forward as some of their other title rivals.

Rodgers should be applauded for the way in which he returned Liverpool to the Champions League, surpassing everyone's expectation by finishing as runners-up behind Manchester City in 2013/14. 

The Merseyside club also played the most entertaining and exciting brand of free-flowing attack minded football, with goals very much at the forefront of their success thanks largely to the exploits of Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

The England international will be under pressure to deliver the same sort of return again this season, even more so following the departure of his prolific Uruguayan strike partner.

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Liverpool's £4 million acquisition of Rickie Lambert looks like an astute piece of business when you consider his goalscoring threat and efficient link-up play between midfield and attack, but anyone believing he can fill the Suarez-shaped void is wrong.

A creative midfield support cast consisting of fellow summer signings Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic, as well as existing stars like Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho will help ensure that chances remain at a premium for Sturridge and Co, but that still won't account for the loss of Liverpool's influential talisman, who made a habit of winning matches almost singlehandedly on numerous occasions last term.

European distraction

Liverpool's return to Europe's elite club competition - whilst celebrated - could also ultimately prove to be their downfall this season. Remember, one of the reasons they performed so well last season was the fact they had no European distractions, able to focus fully on their domestic campaign.

Without the Champions League carrot to dangle Liverpool would arguably not have been able to attract the calibre of players they have successfully recruited this summer, but the harsh reality is that participation is likely to do more harm than good to their Premier League title aspirations, with more games and a much more challenging fixture schedule to juggle.

Rodgers made no secret of the need to add more depth to his squad during the transfer window in preparation for the anticipated extra strain on his players - the majority of which have not experienced three-game European weeks before.

Top four rivals

Manchester United will benefit from no Champions League or Europa League football this season in the same way that Liverpool did last year and, under the new tutelage of Louis van Gaal are expected to make a significant improvement on their showing last season.

Whilst pre-season results should only ever be taken with a pinch of salt, the manner of the Red Devils' performances - maintaining a perfect record of five wins from five games against the likes of LA Galaxy, Liverpool, Real Madrid, AS Roma and Inter Milan en route to winning the International Champions Cup - has provided plenty of reason for early optimism.

The arrival of Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw at Old Trafford has also strengthened areas of the squad that needed improving, and with more players expected to follow before the transfer deadline Manchester United should not be discounted from the title race this season, with a top four finish the minimum requirement.

Chelsea title favourites

Chelsea are shaping up as the favourites for the domestic crown before a ball has even been kicked, given the quality of signings Jose Mourinho has lured to Stamford Bridge. In Diego Costa the Blues have added the world-class striker they were lacking last season, and Cesc Fabregas will also play an important role in midfield, following the departure of Frank Lampard.

Filipe Luis is also a solid acquisition for the left-back position after Ashley Cole left for Roma, and the return of Thibaut Courtois to challenge Petr Cech for the number one spot means that Mourinho has two top level goalkeepers to choose from.

There's no doubt that Chelsea have the greatest strength and depth, with existing stars like Eden Hazard, Oscar and Nemanja Matic all set to play a prominent role. They also look solid in defence with John Terry and Gary Cahill to be supported by Luis and either Branislav Ivanovic or Cesar Azpilicueta on the opposite flank. 

City quietly confident

By comparison, reigning champions Manchester City have not been particularly busy during the transfer window, but crucially - and unlike Liverpool - they have not lost any star players that helped them lift the domestic title last season, providing Yaya Toure is pulling in the right direction come the start of the new campaign.

The acquisition of Brazilian midfielder Fernando from Porto will provide Manuel Pellegrini with another solid option in the middle of the park, and he could have the same kind of impact as compatriot Fernandinho had at the Etihad Stadium, while Willy Caballero will provide competition for Joe Hart between the sticks.

Despite the injury blow to Alvaro Negredo, the Citizens still have Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic in attack, and will be definite title contenders again in 2014/15.

Arsenal have improved

Arsenal are Liverpool's other main contenders for a top four spot, and when you compare this season's squad to ones that Arsene Wenger has previously secured Champions League football with in the past, it's hard to see the Gunners finishing any lower than fourth.

The arrival of Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona has given the north London club a huge lift, and the capture of three other quality players has Arsenal fans dreaming of the Premier League title again.

Their participation in Europe this season will not have anywhere near the same impact as Liverpool, because Wenger and his players are used to juggling the busy fixture schedule year on year.

With Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United all expected to excel it means Liverpool will be forced to settle for a fifth placed finish at best, and that's before you consider the likes of Everton and Tottenham Hotspur who will both be looking to progress themselves in the forthcoming campaign.

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