We will regard this season as Liverpool’s – regardless of their late slip-up
Though City may claim the title, Brendan Rodgers has ensured that the Merseyside giants are real contenders again
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez shows his anguish following his side’s costly draw against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Six days ago, Liverpool had a clear pathway to their first league title since 1990. They were 3-0 up at Crystal Palace and the ‘as it stands’ table showed they had 83 points. Manchester City had 80 and though the probability was that City would get to 83 on Wednesday by beating Aston Villa, which they did, Liverpool’s total meant that they would be going into the last game of the season level with City.
City would be top on goal difference but they would be aware of Liverpool’s presence, of red pressure.
Then Crystal Palace scored three. As that unfolded, City’s task against Villa became less stressful and Liverpool’s clear pathway began to sprout thickets of doubt. What if?
What if Steven Gerrard had not slipped against Chelsea? What if Glen Johnson had closed down Damien Delaney with rather more commitment in the 79th minute at Palace? What if, 3-0 up, Liverpool had not gone searching for goal four or five? What if?
These are understandable questions. But we are in danger of becoming entangled in what might have been, when it would be more instructive and, for Liverpool, calming, to focus on what has been. And rather than a sense of loss, there would be a sense of gain, because Liverpool’s achievement this season is to have made themselves relevant again.
Any red regret at the dramatic late developments at Selhurst should be set against red pride that, as they prepare for the final day, Liverpool still have a chance of being Premier League champions.
Whatever happens tomorrow, their season has not been about fading away, but about burning again.
It is inconceivable that Liverpool will not win on Sunday, probably heavily, against Newcastle United, a team barely going through the motions for a club hollowed out.
That means City must avoid defeat against West Ham if they are to become champions for the second time in three seasons. Given that City beat West Ham 9-0 on aggregate in the League Cup semi-final in January, a Hammers victory would stun more than City.
But at Anfield, Liverpool will play as if there is that possibility. If the expected occurs and City win, then Liverpool will come second. They will have accumulated 84 points.
It will be only the second time in 12 years that Anfield has produced a serious challenge.
Five years ago Rafa Benitez cajoled Liverpool close to Manchester United – Benitez’s team of Reina, Carragher, Alonso, Gerrard and Torres chased down United and got 86 points in the process.
What happened next is what should steady Liverpool nerves about what’s gone on in their last two matches. From 86 points and second place, Liverpool tumbled to 63 points and seventh place. As Roy Hodgson replaced Benitez and Kenny Dalglish replaced Hodgson, Liverpool slumped. It was considerably worse than conceding those goals against Chelsea and Palace.
Two years ago, Liverpool finished eighth, 37 points off champions City. It is worth repeating: 37 points off City.
Liverpool scored only 47 league goals. Luis Suarez got 11 of them, the only player to reach double figures. Today Liverpool are two points off City and have scored 99 times in the Premier League.
Suarez has 31 goals, Daniel Sturridge has 20.
That is a context, every bit as much as a ropey 15 minutes at Crystal Palace.
On the last day of that 2011-12 season Liverpool lost 1-0 at Swansea City, who were managed by Brendan Rodgers, and this feels more like the place where assessments of Liverpool, May 2014, should begin. They had just lost the FA Cup final to Chelsea. The squad contained the likes of Pepe Reina, Andy Carroll, Craig Bellamy, Stewart Downing, Dirk Kuyt, Charlie Adam and Maxi Rodriguez.
None of them have lasted with Rodgers. But denuding the squad he inherited while trying to construct a team that he wants has not been easy. He wanted Clint Dempsey, remember that?
Last season – Rodgers’ first at Anfield – had several other tender moments, such as losing at Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup. Liverpool finished seventh in the league, they were out of Europe and out of the elite’s minds, again. Manchester United’s last season of Alex Ferguson obscured Liverpool.
It obscured a lot of things. As this season at United began to get away from David Moyes’ grasp, last season’s United came to be known as the best of a poor bunch. City, Chelsea and Arsenal all had their internal issues, and yet Liverpool were still miles away.
That is in part why we will recall this season as Liverpool’s, regardless of Monday night.
Manchester City should claim the league title but they have not swept us away for some time, no matter what the likeable Manuel Pellegrini says. With the best squad, City will have fulfilled their obligation to win the Premier League. They must be judged by Champions League performances, and City, beaten 4-1 on aggregate by Barcelona, did not make the quarter-finals.
That does not make us indifferent to City – it would be some task considering Yaya Toure is in their ranks – but they are not glorious champions. They lost home and away to Chelsea, they lost at Anfield and drew at Arsenal.
Whatever happens tomorrow, we are more likely to remember this Premier League season as the one in which Manchester United collapsed, not Liverpool. Liverpool came back.