Manchester City and Liverpool's epic title race was decided by millimetres and seconds
Eighty-three seconds; that's all they had. For just under one-and-a-half minutes, Liverpool and their supporters allowed hope to turn into belief that a 29-year wait to be champions of England would come to an end on the final day of the Premier League season.
Having taken a 17th-minute lead against Wolves at Anfield through Sadio Mane, news came through that Glenn Murray had headed Brighton in front against Manchester City at the Amex Stadium. A murmur went around Anfield before turning into a deafening roar.
At first, though, it was a false dawn. In the modern era of instant news on social media, the phenomenon of misheard scorelines and false alarms about goals should be a thing of the past, but Liverpool fans repeatedly jumped up and celebrated wildly, under the incorrect impression their title rivals were trailing.
Moments later, though, a second ripple became a crescendo of noise. Brighton had scored and The Kop erupted. Flares were lit and songs were sung; the title was finally within Liverpool's grasp. Some 215 miles south, Pep Guardiola removed his grey coat as his agitation grew.
For Liverpool to win their first title since 1990, they needed to win their game and hope for City to slip up. Nobody really believed it would happen -- Guardiola's men had not even fallen behind in a league game since losing at Newcastle in January -- but on the very last day of the season, it was happening.
Fate? Maybe it was on Liverpool's side. Maybe that incredible 4-0 Champions League semifinal second leg victory against Barcelona last Tuesday was merely the pre-cursor to the main event five days later.
But within 83 seconds of Murray's goal, Sergio Aguero levelled for City and the elation gave way to deflation inside Anfield. At that stage, with Liverpool winning and City drawing, Jurgen Klopp's team were still on course to end the day as champions.
Liverpool supporters knew, though. A lull descended over the stadium, punctured only by the Wolves fans celebrating. More City goals were inevitable and so it proved. Aymeric Laporte made it 2-1 with a storming header eight minutes before half-time, then Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan completed City's emphatic victory in the second period.
Wolves supporters, basking in the Anfield sunshine, mocked their counterparts by cheering City's goals and singing the name of former Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling -- now a key man at City -- before rubbing it in by chanting, "you nearly won the league!" It summed up the situation in one way, yet did little to explain how remarkable the battle at the top has been.
Liverpool ended the season on 97 points, having suffered just one defeat -- against City in early January -- but still did not walk away with the trophy because City racked up 98. Legendary former Anfield manager Bill Shankly used to say that first is first and second is nowhere, but that is harsh on his old club this season.
They played their part in the most incredible title race for at least 20 years -- nothing has compared to their battle with City since Manchester United's Treble winners edged out Arsene Wenger's first great Arsenal side in 1999 -- but at the end of it, ended as runners-up because Pep Guardiola's City have been so good.
Never before have two teams surged through the run-in with such incredible consistency. So much for the nerves and anxiety of the season's final weeks of the season, both clubs just kept winning; City amassed 14 straight victories to close out the campaign, while Liverpool managed nine in a row.
City claimed a league record 100 points last season and, 12 months on, fell just two short of equalling that historic tally. However, in contrast to 2017-18, when they finished 19 points clear of second-placed Manchester United, this time they were pushed every inch of the way.
"I think first we have to say congratulations Liverpool as well -- and thank you of course -- because they helped us to push and improve our standard from last season," said Guardiola. "I think it's not just my feeling, it's the feeling of the team and the club, the players and the staff, this is the toughest Premier League title win that we have won, in my career by far."
Vincent Kompany agreed, saying this was the toughest title of the four he has won as City captain, at the conclusion of a race defined by incredible quality and the finest of margins. The season ended with seconds separating key moments, but you might say that millimetres were the ultimate difference between City and Liverpool.
- Ames: Man City pass test of character to clinch title glory
- Ratings: Mane ensures Liverpool end on winning note
When Liverpool travelled to the Etihad Stadium on Jan. 4, they were seven points clear at the top and knew victory would open a gap of double digits, surely ending City's hopes. Early in the game, a goal-line clearance by John Stones, who got to the ball with 11 millimetres to spare, kept the score 0-0 and City went on to win and reduce the gap to four points.
Stones said later "those sorts of things can change games." As it transpired, his intervention went beyond one match in terms of importance for the eventual champions, who would also beat Burnley with an Aguero goal that crossed the line by just 29.5 millimetres.
Liverpool were not without their own moments of good fortune, never more so than in the 96th minute of a goalless Merseyside derby in early December when Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford pushed Virgil van Dijk's looping shot onto the crossbar. Divock Origi scored from the rebound. Everton manager Marco Silva called the victors "lucky, lucky, lucky," but the goal ignited belief that this could be Liverpool's year.
Six days later, Guardiola's men began to wobble when they lost at Chelsea, and back-to-back defeats against Crystal Palace and Leicester later in December threw the pendulum in Liverpool's favour. But Klopp's side stumbled in a five-week period from late January, drawing four times in six games. When the final whistle blew in a 0-0 draw at Everton on March 3, City were back in control.
Run-ins are often defined by challengers slipping up, which is what made this iteration so remarkable: There was no choking in the final straight. The approaches were often contrasting -- City racked up wins relentlessly with almost machine-like efficiency, while Liverpool lived on the edge with an indefatigable capacity -- but both teams with their foot firmly on the pedal.
City went from the end of January to the final day without trailing in a game and, when they needed a big contribution from a big player, saw Aguero or Raheem Sterling step up. More unlikely was the scoring contribution of captain marvel Kompany, who delivered with a 30-yard stunner to beat Leicester.
Liverpool had Mohamed Salah to score a wonder goal against Chelsea and squeezed by Tottenham thanks to a late own goal, before Origi headed a late winner at Newcastle.
There was excellence on both sides. Aguero, Salah and Mane each scored more than 20 league goals, while Sterling and Virgil van Dijk claimed one domestic player of the year apiece. Laporte brought to City defensively what Van Dijk gave Liverpool. In goal, the two Brazilians, Ederson and Alisson Becker, took the position to a new level.
Either side would have been worthy champions, but while City head into the summer with medals around their neck, Liverpool's wait goes on. Klopp and his players stayed at the city's Hope Street Hotel ahead of the Wolves game, perhaps attempting to conjure a last bit of fate. In the end, there was no hope, but their manager insisted this was no one-off.
"This team is one of the best to ever play for Liverpool," Klopp said. "This club is in a great moment and that will not end because another team finished with one point more. There is more to come, we will go again. This team tried for the first time, and is one of the best to play for LFC, 100 per cent. If you think this is our only chance with a side like this, I feel for you."
Liverpool might have regrets about drawing against Arsenal, Leicester and West Ham -- games in which they took the lead -- but, equally, City will look back with relief at a missed Riyad Mahrez penalty when the two sides met at Anfield in early October.
The former Leicester winger redeemed himself at the Amex with a crucial goal, which made the score 3-1 and banished any prospect of a Brighton fightback, and in doing so spurred the defiance of Liverpool fans at Anfield, who sang about going to Madrid ahead of next month's Champions League final against Tottenham.
A sixth European Cup win would soften the blow of missing on the league title, but for now Liverpool must accept that City have just been too formidable, too powerful and too ruthless. Both sides are set to go head-to-head again next season and, given they have redefined what it takes to dominate while the rest of their top-six rivals are floundered to varying degrees, few would pick against them a repeat of the top two.
As for the order in which they finish, the last nine months have shown that even the tiniest edge can be crucial in deciding the destination of the Premier League trophy.