LONDON — While rarely short on bravado or self-confidence these days, Brendan Rodgers did betray a sense of trepidation when taking the Liverpool job.
"It's the start of a long, hard journey for us," Rodgers said in a rare televised dressing room team talk before his first game in charge in 2012. "If it was easy it wouldn't be worth doing ... you can only trust yourselves."
How much longer, though, will Liverpool's owners trust Rodgers with the job that turned Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley into such managerial titans in the last century? He seems safe for now, but not since the 1950s has a Liverpool manager — Shankly's predecessor Phil Taylor — failed to win a trophy in his first three seasons.
Even Kenny Dalglish won a trophy — the League Cup — during a stop-gap 16-month second spell in charge before making way for Rodgers in 2012. Dalglish will always be revered at Anfield for collecting titles as a player and then as coach, including Liverpool's last topflight title in 1990. But the 42-year-old Rodgers, who joined after winning admiration at Swansea, is still waiting for his first trophy in management.
Rodgers came close to ending Liverpool's long wait for the Premier League title last May, but a late-season collapse allowed Manchester City to seize the trophy and it's been downhill since then.
A 2-1 loss to Aston Villa in the FA Cup semifinals on Sunday ended Rodgers' last chance for a trophy this season. In the glare of a capacity Wembley Stadium and global television audience, it was a day that encapsulated Liverpool's season on the slide and the lack of significant progress in the five years since the Boston Red Sox ownership group rescued the club from financial turmoil.
Outwitted by younger and less experienced Villa counterpart Tim Sherwood, Rodgers seemed to be constantly changing formations against a team which in the Premier League is embroiled in a relegation scrap.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, once the heartbeat of the team, returned from a three-match suspension but seemed as absent as in recent weeks as he struggled to impose himself against the more dynamic Villa players. The botched handling of Gerrard's future has been another misstep by Rodgers and the club directors this year. The 34-year-old midfielder will end his lifelong association with Liverpool in May and join the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Mario Balotelli's appearance as a second-half substitute at Wembley provided a reminder of the worst decision of the Rodgers era. The enigmatic Italy striker was signed to replace prolific scorer Luis Suarez in a panic purchase at the end of the summer transfer window. With a solitary Premier League goal to his name, Liverpool will struggle to recoup the $24 million transfer fee if the club decides to part way with the Italian after one disappointing season.
Balotelli was the latest underwhelming signing of the Rodgers era which has seen more than $300 million spent on players.
And the revenue coming into Liverpool will drop next season, with a return to the Champions League looking less likely as the top four in the league drift further away.
Rodgers' big achievement last season was securing Liverpool's return to the European elite after five years. But the team slumped out in the group stage with Rodgers criticized for fielding a weakened team in a glamor match at Real Madrid.
And having given into Suarez's desire last July to join Barcelona for more than $100 million, Rodgers might soon have to face up to losing the team's latest star, Raheem Sterling. After declining a new contract and avoiding committing his future to Liverpool in a subsequent interview, Sterling is entering the final two years of his deal.
The winger has denied being a "money-grabbing 20-year old" after turning down a weekly pay packet of 100,000 pounds ($150,000). But the public nature of the contract standoff with Liverpool has been disruptive and recent performances haven't justified his hype.
Former vice captain Jamie Carragher pointedly tweeted after Sunday's game, without naming any players or members of the management: "Big games need big players to do big things. Not many of them at Lfc which make wages demands of some ridiculous & the recruitment worse."
It reflects the growing skepticism when assessing if Liverpool is better off under Rodgers.
Often ridiculed for his baffling post-match assessments, Rodgers backed his team on Sunday by saying: "Sometimes you can want to win too much and the focus comes away from what allows you to win."
If he doesn't collect a trophy soon, the "long, hard journey" Rodgers embarked on in 2012 at Liverpool might soon reach a dead end. For now, Liverpool is at a crossroad — again.
Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris