Premier League 2018-19: Liverpool fall short in title race but Klopp has Reds on right track
When Vincent Kompany broke through Leicester City's stoic resistance with a long-range rocket launched in hope more than expectation, Liverpool fans began to accept their title hopes were over.
Fast forward 24 hours, however, and the mood had suddenly and spectacularly changed. A miraculous Champions League recovery against Barcelona at Anfield secured a second successive final appearance in Europe's major club competition, meaning an outstanding campaign may yet end with a trophy.
Yet this season does not require silverware to define it as a success. What this squad has achieved should not be undermined simply because of their final position in the table.
Liverpool ran a valiant race in the league, clearing plenty of tricky hurdles along the way but, in the end, coming home in second place. Jurgen Klopp's side pushed Manchester City right to the end as the only two thoroughbreds in the Premier League stakes stayed the course, despite the going getting heavy at times. Eventually, those wearing the blue colours won it by a nose.
Liverpool finished with 97 points. Ninety. Seven. It is the third highest tally in the Premier League era yet still not enough to secure that elusive 19th title. This was as close as they had come in five years, not that the slender margin makes it any easier to accept being the runner-up.
The heavy metal football of recent years was toned down in 2018-19, paving the way for pragmatism in the pursuit of points. A defensive unit that appeared to have all the structural integrity of a tower built out of soggy beer coasters was transformed from a clear weakness to an undoubted area of strength, conceding just 22 goals in 38 league games.
If there is a concern for supporters, it is that Liverpool were in pristine condition for much of the contest. Key players stayed fit – at least until the closing stages of a gruelling schedule – and there were crucial late goals, two factors that are nigh-on impossible to repeat on a yearly basis.
Can Klopp be expected to train his players to perform at an even greater standard? If 97 points were not enough this time around, how many more might it take to triumph in 2020? The pessimistic among the fanbase will fear a glaring opportunity has gone begging – how long until the next one comes along?
Those with a more optimistic outlook will see a squad that is still on the rise, though. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a non-factor as he recovered from a serious injury, while Joe Gomez missed nearly half the season. Both, along with young forward Rhian Brewster, can be expected to play greater roles going forward.
Add in the potential for more regular contributions from Naby Keita, who flashed glimpses of his obvious talent this season, and there is enough there to suggest there is still room for improvement, even without any additions.
Perhaps the main reason to keep the faith is not a player in the current squad or a potential new arrival in the transfer window (an extra forward to spread the workload would be beneficial) but the man at the helm who jockeys them along.
12 - Trent Alexander-Arnold has provided 12 assists in the Premier League in 2018-19: the most by a defender in a single campaign in the competition. Adventure. pic.twitter.com/0bnDFqLBXg— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 12, 2019
Klopp has embraced life in Liverpool; he is the perfect fit for the city, the famous football manager with a down-to-earth demeanour who drinks in his local. He is held in such high regard by the Reds in the city that most will believe he can walk across the Mersey, rather than bother waiting for the ferry.
"This season has been a year full of wonderful moments together," he said after the 4-0 thumping of Lionel Messi's Barcelona. "Looking forward to games, enjoying games and last Tuesday was the icing on the cake so far. Wow.
"That's exactly the picture we want to draw for the outside world - this is Liverpool, it's possible here, it's possible in this club and in this city with the people around. That's the picture. A moment like this is worth more than silverware."
History suggests Liverpool struggle in the aftermath of an extended title challenge. After finishing behind Manchester United in 2008-09, the wheels came off for Rafael Benitez. The following year they finished seventh and the Spaniard was gone. After Brendan Rodgers' class of 2013-14 faltered down the stretch to miss out to City, Luis Suarez's departure to Barcelona sunk any ideas of pushing on.
There is no reason to fear something similar happening under Klopp, though. Finishing second to this City squad is not a failure - it is further progress. Plus, it was a hell of a fun ride along the way.