In the end, it was Mohamed Salah’s face which said more than any post-match assessment or analysis ever could.
Every picture tells a story, or so the saying goes. This one told hundreds.
Clutching the Premier League Golden Boot trophy, as well as another marking his status as the newly-crowned ‘Playmaker of the Year’, Liverpool’s Egyptian King wore the look of a man who had his heart ripped out.
He had. Salah may have added a couple of awards to his personal collection at Anfield on Sunday, but he missed out on the one that he – and his team-mates, manager and supporters – really wanted.
Manchester City’s late blitz against Aston Villa ensured it was they and not Liverpool who ended the day with their hands on the Premier League trophy, when for so long it had looked like a dramatic final-day twist was on the cards.
Sincere congratulations must go to Pep Guardiola’s men, who fought back stunningly from 2-0 down to go 3-2 up in the space of six second-half minutes at the Etihad, killing off Liverpool’s hopes and ensuring that Salah’s 31st goal of a fantastic campaign was irrelevant, other than for the fact it drew him level with Tottenham’s Son Heung-min in the race to be the league’s leading goalscorer.
Good for Salah of course, although the award – his third in five seasons on Merseyside – will feel like scant consolation right now. He wanted the big one. They all did.
Pride and defiance were the overriding emotions of the day at Anfield, with a post-match lap of appreciation conducted in front of a full house. They stayed behind long after the final whistle to salute their heroes, and rightly so.
But having given so much to an enthralling campaign, and having worked wonders to cut what looked at one point to be an unassailable City lead, Liverpool will be devastated to have fallen agonisingly short.
As Klopp put it, they were “close, but in the end not close enough,” and boy will that hurt.
They believed for much of the afternoon, and they were given plenty of reason to as well. Villa had them dreaming. It will hurt Steven Gerrard as much as anybody that his side could not quite finish the job off. The Reds legend nearly pulled off one more Superman act for the club he loves.
Liverpool’s task for the weekend was simple; beat Wolves and cross their fingers, hoping for an upset at the Etihad. It looked a tall order – the second part at least – but for most of an enthralling afternoon, it seemed like things might just be about to fall their way.
Their own performance was sketchy. They fell behind to Pedro Neto’s third-minute strike, but hit back through Sadio Mane midway through the first half.
Then, around eight minutes before half-time, came the roar that told you everything. Villa had scored at the Etihad. Matty Cash. The jokes wrote themselves; cash for once harming City’s bid for glory, instead of helping it.
Liverpool lost Thiago Alcantara to injury, a serious worry with the Champions League final to come next Saturday, but they knew at that point that another goal would put them in the championship position.
It did not come, but then came another roar. Deafening this time. Hairs on the back of the neck stuff. Villa had scored again to lead 2-0. Philippe Coutinho, of all people. It was written, surely? There were just 21 minutes to play.
The trouble was, Liverpool were not playing particularly well. Wolves, in fact, looked the more likely scorers. Anfield roared and it chewed its fingernails and it prayed. One goal. The next goal. Please.
The next goal came, but at the Etihad. Ilkay Gundogan. The Liverpool faces said it all. Trouble.
Then, almost immediately, another goal. City again. Rodri. Then another. Gundogan again. The kind of blitz which leaves you dizzy. The kind of blitz which wins you a league title.
Liverpool, you sensed, knew it was gone, and yet still they summoned the strength to make it interesting. Full credit there. Salah struck in front of the Kop, his 23rd league goal of the campaign, and Klopp’s side led for the first time all day.
Bizarrely, another roar went up almost immediately, though it was quickly established that, sadly, Villa had not equalized in Manchester. Whoever started that one would be well-advised to keep his or her head down for a while.
Andy Robertson completed the day’s scoring, his late strike securing the win and ensuring that, for the third time in four Premier League seasons, Klopp’s team were able to break the 90-point barrier.
Their consistency is remarkable – “crazy,” said Klopp – and yet they have ‘only’ one league title to show for their magnificent efforts. If that does not tell you about the strength of this City machine under Guardiola, nothing will.
Liverpool should have few regrets. Since their defeat at Leicester on December 29, they have played 19 league games and won 16 of them. Their only dropped points have come in draws away to Chelsea and Manchester City and at home to Tottenham; in other words, tight games against the teams directly above and below them in the table.
Sure, there will be some hand-wringing about dropped points during the first half of the campaign. Games against Brentford and Brighton stand out in that regard, and Klopp will certainly wish his side had held on when leading Manchester City at Anfield with nine minutes to go back in October.
They also failed to make a numerical advantage count against Chelsea in September, and let a second-half lead slip away at Tottenham in December, on a day when several first-teamers were absent due to coronavirus. Who knows what might have happened had referee Paul Tierney sent off Harry Kane, as he most certainly should have, during the first half of that game.
Ifs, buts and maybes are not this thing thing, though, and while missing out on another title will sting, the silver lining is that while everyone else’s season ended here, Liverpool’s did not.
Rather than dwelling on what might have been, they head to Paris for a date with Real Madrid, and the chance to end a wonderful campaign with a seventh European Cup. Sunday’s sadness will subside quickly, as thousands upon thousands of supporters prepare to descend on the French capital this week.
This team deserves that. It deserves that stage and that occasion. It deserves that support, that pride and that party. They may have fallen short here, but they are already winners in the eyes of their people. They have taken them to places they could barely have dreamed of.
In the end it was Salah’s face – solemn, pained, haunted – which summed up the day. He knew what this meant. He knew how close Liverpool were.
The challenge now is to turn those frowns upside down in the Stade de France. It won’t be easy, by any means, but don’t bet against them.
Not this team.