LONDON, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Liverpool will be back challenging for the Premier League title next season after slipping off the pace this time round, manager Brendan Rodgers said on Thursday.
The Northern Irishman took Liverpool to the verge of their first English title since 1990 last year before they faltered badly with the prize in sight, missing out to Manchester City.
Now they find themselves in eighth-place, 17 points behind leaders Chelsea, and struggling to secure the top-four finish which would at least provide Champions League qualification.
The sale of forward Luis Suarez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge's ongoing injury problems hit Liverpool hard while some of Rodgers' close-season signings have made slow starts.
Yet Liverpool are unbeaten in all competitions since the start of December and there have been signs that Rodgers' seemingly unshakeable confidence is rubbing off on his side.
"This season was always going to be difficult," Rodgers told a news conference ahead of Saturday's home FA Cup tie against Championship (second tier) side Bolton Wanderers.
"With so many changes and everything that's happened, we weren't going to challenge for the league this year. That's reality.
"This season has been about getting into the top four, minimising the impact of so many new signings, giving them the time to develop, and then targeting the cup competitions.
"I believe the squad has Premier League-winning capabilities."
For now, the focus is on the cups.
Liverpool are halfway through a League Cup semi-final against Chelsea, drawing 1-1 at Anfield in the first leg this week, and are also in the Europa League's last 32 having failed to qualify for the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
"The players can grow together, and if we can get success in a cup competition this year that will give us even greater stimulus to stick together and perform," he said.
Sturridge is still not quite ready to return from the thigh problem that has ruled him out since September, but Mario Balotelli could feature against Bolton after shaking off a chest infection. Midfielder Joe Allen and full back Glen Johnson are also fit after knee and groin injuries.
"Joe Allen is back and has trained this week which has been great," Rodgers said. "Glen has had a good week's training and will be available. Mario has trained as well.
"We will make some changes for the game but not too many. It's a game we want to win and we want to progress into the next round." (Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Toby Davis)