The what-ifs that haunt Liverpool as title bid falls short

LIVERPOOL, England — There are always what-ifs when a team gets so close to glory. Liverpool may yet end the 2021-22 season as Treble winners if they add the Champions League to the FA Cup and Carabao Cup already won by Jurgen Klopp’s players this year, but when they analyse how they missed out on clinching the Premier League title, it will come down to seven crucial minutes.

Manchester City trailed 2-0 at home to Aston Villa while Liverpool laid siege to the Wolves’ goal at Anfield, desperately attempting to score the goal that would give them the lead and take them top of the table with less than 20 minutes to play.

Some City fans had already given up on Pep Guardiola’s team at the Etihad, with ESPN’s Rob Dawson reporting that a number had started to drift out of the stadium with it seemingly inevitable that Liverpool would score and claim the initiative at Anfield.

Had Liverpool been able to find their second goal while City trailed 2-0, who knows how big a demoralising blow it would have inflicted on Guardiola’s players? Had Liverpool scored, the Etihad may have emptied even further and drained all hope of a late fightback.

But it was City who scored the next goal, with Ilkay Gundogan sparking the onslaught that delivered three goals in five minutes and transformed the mood at the Etihad. Liverpool missed their moment, and the atmosphere inside Anfield went from euphoric to silent in the space of a few seconds.

What if Liverpool had scored before City? What if?

But having eventually beaten Wolves by 3-1 and ending the season with 92 points — one fewer than City — Liverpool’s failure to win a second title in three years comes down to the fine margins that make all the difference.

They only lost two league games all season — at West Ham and Leicester — and ended the campaign as the only unbeaten side in 2022, so it is the near misses that will haunt Klopp and his players.

Liverpool were 2-0 up at Chelsea after 26 minutes on Jan. 2, but ended up drawing 2-2. It was the same story at home to Brighton in October, when 2-0 became 2-2, that time after being two goals clear after 24 minutes.

Klopp’s team also conceded winning positions to draw against Brentford, Manchester City and Tottenham. Despite finishing 18 points clear of third-placed Chelsea, Liverpool ended the season having failed to beat any of the top four, drawing twice against City, Chelsea and Spurs.

So these are the games where the title was lost, even if it seems harsh to find fault in a team that amassed so many points and lost just twice.

But on the final day of the season, in the final moments, Liverpool had the chance to really turn the screw on City by going ahead against Wolves, and they were unable to do it. By the time Mohamed Salah managed to put Liverpool ahead on 84 minutes, City had already turned defeat into victory by scoring three times in five minutes through Gundogan (twice) and Kevin De Bruyne.

It is Liverpool’s misfortune to be enjoying their peak years under Klopp at the same time City are collecting trophies under Guardiola. Over the last four years, Liverpool have won one title and finished runners-up behind City twice — with 92 points this season and 97 in 2018-19. Those tallies would have been enough to win the title in all but four of the 30 seasons during the Premier League era, but Liverpool just happen to be competing with a team that has set the bar so much higher than the previous champions.

“Ninety-two points is crazy with all the games we play,” Klopp said. “There are worse scenarios — we could have been a point ahead [on the final day] and not made it — but we don’t feel good. We were close, but not close enough.”

Where Liverpool have outperformed Guardiola’s City is in the Champions League, and Klopp’s side can put further daylight between themselves and their Mancunian rivals if they beat Real Madrid in Paris next Saturday.

It will be Liverpool’s third Champions League final in five seasons and they can win a second European Cup in that time — and seventh overall — by winning in the Stade de France. City, of course, have yet to win the Champions League.

Having gone so close and endured such dramatic tension on the final day of the league season, Liverpool will need time to overcome the disappointment of missing out on the title and the improbable glory of the quadruple.

But by the time Saturday comes around, winning a seventh European Cup will be all that matters and, if they do that, missing out on the title will quickly fade from the memory.

“We have had an exceptional season,” Klopp said. “I would have preferred they [City] were 5-0 up after 10 minutes so we could just play out game, but the season was close, so close.

“We have five days to prepare for the final against an incredible team, but that’s what we will do. Losing this will only increase our desire to succeed.”

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