There is nothing quite like the noise of a goal being scored elsewhere: the isolated explosion from whoever saw it flash up on their phone or heard it on their radio, first rippling out, the doubts almost audible as the wave spreads. really? Manchester City behind? Could it be true? Then the scramble for confirmation, the celebration hovering uncertainly. What about VAR? Might it yet be ruled out? Then word coming through that City had kicked off again, that the goal stood, that this might actually be happening.
In the end it did not but for 80 unlikely minutes it seemed as though it might. Liverpool did their bit, and that’s all they could do. They won and they hoped and in the end it was not quite enough. Perhaps there is a temptation to go back through the season and wonder which the crucial points were: the Christmas defeat at Leicester perhaps? The defeat at West Ham? The draw at home against Brighton?
But the truth is that 92 points is, by any reasonable measure, an absurd number of points to have gathered; only once before has that not been enough to win the title and that was this Liverpool in 2019. That season Liverpool won the Champions League and, although the quadruple has again proved elusive, that prize perhaps awaits next weekend. There may be disappointment at having missed out on a historical achievement having come so close but, whatever happens against Real Madrid, this has been an astonishing season. There should be no recriminations.
And yet the league was close. With 20 minutes to go it felt almost within Liverpool’s grasp. As Anfield roared about events 35 miles to the east there was profound anxiety. In such circumstances, narrative, the sense that this was written, that it was meant to be, offers comfort.
The possibility that Steven Gerrard might at last win the title for Liverpool had been teased almost to breaking point. But there was more. That, after all their spending, it might be (Matty) Cash that should undo City was almost too delicious. But from a Liverpool point of view there was also the fact that the cross for the Aston Villa full-back had been provided by the other full-back, Lucas Digne, who left Everton only in January because he had fallen out with Rafa Benítez shortly before the Spaniard was sacked. Could this also be Benítez securing a league title for what has always felt like his one true club?
Perhaps there were even memories of 75 years ago, when Liverpool, the team of Bob Paisley and Albert Stubbins, beat Wolves 2-1 on the final day of the season – albeit at Molineux and only because Stoke City subsequently lost at Sheffield United – to clinch the title.
Was there any more narrative that could be heaped on top? It turned out there was, Philippe Coutinho adding the second for Villa at the Etihad. Coutinho has been a key figure in the creation of Klopp’s Liverpool, his sale to Barcelona in effect funding the signings of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk. This felt almost too perfect, all the pieces falling snugly into place.
But one thing remained. None of it mattered if Liverpool did not win. And for a long time that did not look likely. They were open at the back as they often are when Van Dijk is absent, lacking his fine judgment of when to spring the press and just how far to push up. That, and Ibrahima Konaté’s strange error, cost them the opener but there were three or four other decent opportunities on the counter for Wolves. It hardly needs pointing out but Madrid are likely to be rather more clinical if Liverpool are as lax next week.
At the same time there was a tension in possession. On a normal Sunday afternoon Liverpool would probably have swept Wolves away but here, with the line in sight, with so much at stake, the muscles just felt a little tighter, the passing a little less fluent, the mechanisms just a little gummy. Liverpool toileted, missing the injured Thiago Alcantara. The chances did not come quite as readily.
Mohamed Salah did, eventually, put Liverpool ahead but by then the City comeback was already complete. By the time Andy Robertson confirmed the win the cheers were muted, thoughts already drifting to Paris. This was the ninth time in the Premier League era that the title race had gone to the final day and the ninth time the side that had started the day top had won. Overturning leads is difficult, in part because the league deliberately keeps the likely challengers apart on the final weekend.
Would it have made a difference had Salah’s goal come 10 minutes earlier? How would City have handled that pressure? Perhaps it would not have mattered. Gerrard coming close but not quite close enough in the league is itself a well-worn trope: this, in fact, does usually slip. But it would have been interesting to see.
As it was, City had the mentality for the task that was set them. Mentality has been a strength of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Now they have to pick up weary limbs and minds for one last push.