This title challenge was different to the others

So here we are again. Runners-up in a Premier League title race. It’s happened every five years for us in recent times. We lost out in 2008/09 and 2013/14 to create the pattern and have perpetuated it in 2018/19. But it feels different this time.

Few would believe you if you’d said that we would amass 97 points, lose just once and end up finishing second. But we live in the Manchester City and Pep Guardiola era. They won the title last season with 100 points, a record, and were just two shy of matching it. The standards they have set in the past two campaigns have not been seen before and it means that you cannot afford to make (m)any errors in trying to pip them to the crown. They won their final fourteen Premier League games in order to beat us by that single point. Rival fans have labelled us as bottlers, but that just doesn’t ring true on any level. Yes, we drew seven games this past season – but City were beaten four times. Does that make them bottlers? You wouldn’t have thought so. The dropped points against Leicester City and West Ham stung us, there’s no denying it, but it didn’t derail us. And if that’s the worst blip you’re going to have in a season, then you can probably expect to be champions. In most seasons, anyway.

Manchester United and Everton fans will gloat in claiming that the two 0-0 draws at Old Trafford and Goodison Park were the deciding factors in us finishing behind City in second place. But they would be wrong. If the season can be narrowed down to a key moment, then look no further than City’s 2-1 victory over us at The Etihad in January. It was our sole loss in the league this season and it was the game that made the difference overall. Leroy Sane’s winner was probably the single most important goal of City’s season – and that includes Vincent Kompany’s stunning winner against Leicester last week. Had we drawn, or even won that game, we could very well be sat here now with the Premier League trophy in the cabinet. We had just had a superb December – while they stuttered and fell seven points behind us. They absolutely had to win that game to keep us in their sights and close the gap to four points. Looking back over the season, it was that game that made the difference in the end.

We can certainly feel a little hard done by with regards to that loss though. Kompany should have been shown a straight red card in the first-half for what was a wild lunge at Mohamed Salah. Yes, it was barely in their half, but the Egyptian had a clear run at goal and the nature of the challenge was reckless. That moment favoured City and so did John Stones’ last ditch clearance off the line in the same match did. 11mm was all that was stopped us from opening the scoring thanks to some calamitous defending from Stones and goalkeeper Ederson. But the England international redeemed himself, somehow, and City went on to win.

The failure of Anthony Taylor to dismiss the City captain is probably the main bone of contention we can have this season in terms of injustice. There were other moments such as David Silva getting away with a second booking against Leicester, Bernardo Silva’s dubious penalty against West Ham and Kelechi Iheanacho quite possibly purposely skewing a chance wide against his old club last week. We also should have had a penalty when Naby Keita was taken over at 1-1 in the clash with Leicester at Anfield. We earlier had a goal incorrectly chalked off against Arsenal in another drawn match. City fans will come back with accusations of soft penalties for Salah against Newcastle, Brighton and Cardiff and the generous free-kick for our winner at St James’ Park recently. They could also mention our offside goals against West Ham both home and away this season, so it’s pretty much swings and roundabouts when it comes to arguing over incorrect decisions by officials.

Some will feel that this season was a missed opportunity, and they may well have a point given how close we came, and that we should have been more adventurous in the games we drew. Few could deny that we should have had more of a go against United at Old Trafford when an already depleted side suffered yet more injuries during the first half. But who would have thought that a draw there would not end up being good enough? Many went into that game saying that a point would do on the basis that City were surely likely to drop points elsewhere themselves. They didn’t – but we weren’t to know that at the time. The next away game after that saw us travel to Goodison Park to take on an Everton side whose season was already long over. All they had left was the chance to put a dent in our title challenge. And the 0-0 draw that day turned out to be the last time we dropped points this season – something which they will claim was the decisive blow in the race. It wasn’t. While we could, and should, have beaten them that day, a point from the Merseyside derby across Stanley Park isn’t a terrible result – especially when you factor in that it’s their most important game of each season. Salah had a fantastic opportunity to win it for us, but his tame shot was saved by Jordan Pickford. Most onlookers felt that City were likely to at least draw a game elsewhere – and they came agonisingly close to doing just that when they scored a winner against Burnley by a narrow margin before Kompany shocked Leicester with his strike. This is more evidence of just how fine the margins were in the highest quality title race this country has seen.

Others will counter the claims that we blew this chance by saying that Jurgen Klopp and his players could not have done a great deal more than they did in challenging City for the title. But this one shouldn’t feel like a chance that won’t come along again for another five seasons – we have got a squad that will be back again next year. And it is likely to be an even stronger set of players. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was missed this season, will be back to fitness and desperate to help make a difference. Keita will have the benefit of a full season at Anfield under his belt after a tough baptism since his long-protracted arrival last Summer. Joe Gomez will be back and challenging Joel Matip for the spot alongside Virgil Van Dijk at the heart of our defence. There will also be a few new faces in the squad, who will add more depth and quality to what we already have. What the squad has proven this season is that it is capable of kind of consistency that is required to become champions. It wasn’t quite enough this time, but City now know that they have some genuine competition after storming off into the distance in 2017/18. United were their main competition that season and you couldn’t even call what they did a title challenge. It’s hard to see any of the other top six clubs closing the gap on the top two next season. Chelsea look likely to be hamstrung by their transfer ban and the impending exit of star man Eden Hazard, Spurs appear to be too frugal in the transfer market to bring in the quality and depth they need to catch up and Arsenal and United are light years behind with years of rebuilding to undertake. It looks very much like it’s down to us to give City some competition again.

This team deserves some silverware for their efforts this season and the Champions League final is the ideal chance to provide it. It’s our second in succession, only this time we are the favourites to bring it home. Real Madrid are quite clearly not the same force they were a year ago, but they were too strong for our team in Kiev. This time we are faced with the hurdle of a Spurs side who have lost 13 league games this season after ending up 26 points behind us in the table. They also lost another six cup games and look like a much more beatable prospect than the Spanish giants. That’s not to say that they should be taken lightly in Madrid next month, far from it, but their form, especially in 2019, should give us plenty of hope that we can win the competition for the first time since Istanbul in 2005. The chance to return to that same city for the Super Cup early next season should also not be missed either. This side doesn’t lack belief, heart and courage and so we can expect them to go out and give everything they’ve got in three weeks’ time. Having this final to look forward to meant that our season didn’t end in disappointment on Sunday when news of City’s ultimately comfortable win over Brighton filtered through. Few realistically expected Chris Hughton’s side to do us any favours, given that their season had stalled some time before, but when Glenn Murray put them ahead there was a brief glimmer of hope. Sergio Aguero and Aymeric Laporte soon put paid to that, of course, but there was a brief time where we were top ‘as it stands’ on the final day of the campaign. It’s been a while since that last happened. It wasn’t to be the only high point at Anfield on Sunday afternoon, however, as the squad got the send off they deserved at full-time. They could be under no misapprehension that the fans in the stands were anything less than proud of their efforts in trying to lift a first domestic championship since 1989/90. It just wasn’t to be. This time.

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