Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool have recovered a lost status - next step should be to regain glory
But a summer’s planning on how to chip away at the narrow margins, knowing their enhanced status, brings new challenges
The idea that all of England would have preferred the runners-up as 2019 Premier League champions at the end of an epic, high-wire title race was brutally undermined by many visiting supporters at Anfield on Sunday.
Wolverhampton Wanderers fans taunted Liverpool once it became certain Manchester City, winning at Brighton, were on their way to the main prize.
They sang about Raheem Sterling’s triumph in City colours, Sterling being a former Liverpool player, one who very purposefully followed up a Premier League silver medal in red by pushing to join a club, City, he felt was better cut out for gold. To hear the teasing chants was to be reminded that the sport is tribal first, appreciative later.
But what Liverpool have become is the most compelling silver-medalists the top division has known - their 97 points would have yielded the championship in every season but the two City have won back-to-back - and they have recovered a lost status in the elite marketplace.
This is no longer the sort of employer a highly ambitious footballer - a Sterling, a Luis Suarez or a Philippe Coutinho would now regard as a stepping-stone to the game’s summit.
None of those escapees from an Anfield where seasons often wound down with a battle to make the top four will look at this Liverpool and not imagine them strong contenders for the next Premier League title. Suarez and Coutinho, of Barcelona, experienced the momentum of the club vividly in the remarkable turnaround of the Uefa Champions League semi-final.
City’s Sterling would acknowledge the difference between top and next-best in the Premier League was not just the slender 98 points versus 97, but about three centimetres. City beat Liverpool 2-1 in January thanks to John Stones clearing an effort from the goal-line when all but 11.7 millimetres of the ball had crossed that line.
City won at Burnley last month when the only goal of the game was awarded via goal-line technology. Sergio Aguero’s effort breached that line by 29.7mm.
Granted, Liverpool came so close to top spot via fine margins, too, specialists at gouging out very late goals. That will embolden the idea they have the stamina to aim at the summit all over again.
The bar has certainly risen.
“We need to be very, very close to perfection to win the Premier League as long as City are around with the quality and the financial power that they have,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, for whom compensation for seeing hopes of a last-day catch-up dashed is a Champions League final, against Tottenham Hotspur, on June 1.
After that, a summer’s planning on how to chip away at those narrow margins, knowing Liverpool’s enhanced status brings new challenges. Opponents will prepare for 2019/20 fixtures against Liverpool as fearfully as they have over two seasons for games against City, stacking men behind the ball.
The springboard of Liverpool’s rise over the past 18 months was their excellence on the counter-attack, leaving rivals alive to a possibility they might be vulnerable, open in defence, worth taking risks against.
That has changed, partly through the excellent recruits of of 2018, Allison, a goalkeeper who marks his territory high up the pitch, and the stately Virgil van Dijk to marshall the defence. Opponents are increasingly cagey.
Liverpool may need to become more artful at picking their way through packed penalty boxes, as City do, rather than blitzing with speed on the run.
They, like all English clubs, will continue to envy City’s depth, their 22-man squad strength, but Liverpool would hope to begin the next assault with a fitness bulletin that shows off their impressive array of reinforcements. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed most of this epic season with a knee problem; Naby Keita’s first year in England has been disrupted by muscle problems.
Their view from the sidelines has felt frustrating. But, as for everybody watching, it was utterly exhilarating.
Updated: May 14, 2019 08:05 AM