If there was ever an image to tell the story of a day, a season and indeed a rivalry, it was the one beamed through the nation’s TV screens as Mohamed Salah celebrated a goal he perhaps thought was about to deliver Liverpool a sensational Premier League title.
As Salah and his team-mates celebrated in front of the Kop six minutes from the end of this breathless and frantic afternoon, a spectator held up his hands.
Three fingers were showing on the right and just two on the left. Manchester City 3 Aston Villa 2. It was at that moment Salah and his remarkable team-mates knew the title was not to be theirs after all.
So there will be no quadruple for Jurgen Klopp and his team. There will be no treble of League, FA Cup and Champions League. Followers of Manchester United — who won all three in 1999 — will be relieved about that.
But what a season this has been for Liverpool. Ninety-two points and no title. That is the incredible standard set by Pep Guardiola’s City and there is no shame in finishing second to them.
Liverpool saw the title slip away at Anfield on Sunday despite a 3-1 win as Man City stunned Aston Villa with a fine comeback
City were 2-0 down against Steven Gerrard’s side but midfielder Ilkay Gundogan (pictured) score a brace to help make it 3-2
Reds talisman Mo Salah (left) and captain Jordan Henderson (right) looked distraught at the final whistle as their dream died
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson 7; Alexander-Arnold 6, Matip 7, Konate 6, Robertson 6.5; Keita 6 (Firmino 70, 6), Henderson 6, Thiago 7 (Milner 45, 6); Jota 6 (Salah 58, 7), Mane 7, Diaz 6.5.
Substitutes not used: Kelleher; van Dijk, Tsimikas, Jones, Elliott, Minamino.
Goals: Mane 24, Salah 84, Robertson 89.
Yellow cards: Matip 46.
Manager: Jurgen Klopp 6.
Wolves (3-5-2): Sa 6 (Ruddy 45, 6.5); Boly 8, Coady 7, Gomes 6.5; Jonny 6, Dendoncker 6.5 (Trincao 90), Moutinho 6, Neves 6, Ait-Nouri 6; Neto 6.5 (Hwang 22, 6), Jimenez 7.
Substitutes not used: Hoever, Mosquera, Marcal, Podence, Chiquinho, Fabio Silva.
Goals: Neto 3.
Manager: Bruno Lage 7.
Referee: Anthony Taylor 6.5.
Here at Anfield, we witnessed something special once again, only this time it didn’t end the way Liverpool would have liked.
Liverpool were poor by their high standards. Too much of what they did was fuelled by emotion and desperate need. They will have to be calmer and better against Real Madrid in the Champions League final on Saturday evening.
But still they came so very close. Still they did what they needed to do. With eight minutes to go — with City having hauled themselves level against Villa but still not ahead — Liverpool’s need remained simple. It was one goal to win the title.
Their football was anxious and muddled. Their defending was poor. But still they did it. Still Liverpool got what they needed. A late goal from substitute Salah and then another from Andrew Robertson turned a 1-1 draw into a 3-1 win.
Such was the strange nature of the afternoon, though, that neither goal was greeted with the delirious abandon that had met news of those scored in Manchester by Steven Gerrard’s Villa. When those goal flashes appeared on mobile phones at Anfield — at 4.37pm and 5.29pm — this magnificent old stadium reverberated with a sense of abandon unusual even by its own standards.
It was this sense of what could be that drove the drama. There was even a ‘ghost’ goal to deal with in the moments that followed Salah’s strike. Briefly, Anfield was alive again as phone connections were sought and website pages frantically refreshed. But once reality dawned that Villa had not indeed pulled level at 3-3, Liverpool played out the final moments of this game in relative silence. It was the only time that Anfield had been remotely calm all afternoon.
The old place was alive with the sense of possibility at kick-off. Three minutes later, Liverpool were behind.
A punt downfield from Wolves goalkeeper Jose Sa was misjudged by Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konate and that allowed Raul Jimenez to run down the right and square for Pedro Neto to score. It was an inauspicious start by Klopp’s team and turned out to be typical.
Wolves, not lacking ambition, broke on their opponents regularly and would have scored again had they been more adept at making an accurate final pass.
One such opportunity was spurned at the near post by Leander Dendoncker in the 18th minute and six minutes after that Liverpool were on terms. The home team had been pressing and, when Thiago Alcantara flicked on a pass from deep, Sadio Mane ran clear to beat Sa with his left foot.
That should have set Liverpool fair for victory. They still had more than an hour left. But this was a bitty, unconvincing performance, despite their weight of possession. The loss of Thiago to what looked like a muscle injury at half-time didn’t help and, when the hour mark arrived with only a disallowed Mane goal to show for their efforts, Klopp threw on Salah — injured in the FA Cup final — then Roberto Firmino soon after.
Before the game police officers on horses patrolled the streets around Anfield as red smoke from flares coloured the air
Reds boss Jurgen Klopp looked on intently as his players warmed up on the pitch prior to kick-off on Saturday mid-afternoon
A rousing rendition of club anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before kick-off packed the famous old stadium with huge noise
But Wolves forward Pedro Neto (centre) obviously had not read the script, stunning the home crowd with a third-minute goal
The 22-year-old winger scored his first league goal of the season after just three minutes, turning home Raul Jimenez’ pass
As time wore on and unexpected opportunity knocked in the shape of the news from the Etihad, Liverpool pushed forwards in an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension. Wolves had their reserve keeper John Ruddy in goal by now — Sa had not reappeared after half-time — and he denied Trent Alexander-Arnold, before defensive bodies were thrown in the way of shots from Luis Diaz and Mane.
Into the last 10 minutes and the prospect grew of Liverpool failing to take advantage of City’s problems. That would have been almost impossible to take. Eventually, the goals arrived. Close range from Salah after a corner and another from Robertson. But by then relief had been sought and found at the Etihad, too. All this effort. All this tension. All this drama. All ultimately for nothing.
We live in rare times in the Premier League. Liverpool won 16 and drew two of their last 18 games and didn’t win the league. One day that may serve as consolation for Klopp and his players. Just not yet. And not for a while.
But the Reds’ Senegalese forward Sadio Mane (centre) levelled the game up midway through the first half with a fine finish
A delighted Klopp erupted with emotion on the touchline, fist-pumping to the home fans to celebrate the equaliser joyously
Wolves’ reserve goalkeeper John Ruddy (pictured) replaced No 1 Sa at half-time after the Portuguese stopper was injured
In the second half Mane lifted the ball over Ruddy and the stadium erupted – but the goal was correctly disallowed for offside
Egyptian star Mohamed Salah (centre) came off the bench and made it 2-1, turning home Joel Matip’s header at the back post
Former Liverpool player and Wolves captain Conor Coady (second left) commiserated Klopp after the final whistle blew