Mane at the double but Liverpool have to settle for second
Liverpool dreams of a first league title in 29 years were crushed despite a 2-0 win over Wolves.
Sadio Mane’s 25th and 26th goals of the season upheld their end of the bargain on a tense and occasionally surreal final day of the Premier League campaign – but there was no fairytale finish as Manchester City won 4-1 at Brighton to extend the Anfield wait to be champions again.
The Reds’ great manager Bill Shankly once insisted “first is first and second is nowhere” but that would be harsh on this current team’s achievements.
To put their season into perspective a record runners-up points tally of 97 is the third-highest in the top-flight’s history, beaten only by City’s 98 this season and 100 last.
Before Tuesday’s remarkable 4-0 comeback against Barcelona to reach a second successive Champions League final manager Jurgen Klopp had said if they did not get through they would “fail beautifully”.
If there is such a thing then they did it in the Premier League.
Such fine margins decided this title race and for Liverpool it effectively came down to 11 millimetres, the distance goalline technology decided Mane’s shot was from going in for what would have been the opening goal at the Etihad Stadium in January – the only league game they lost this season.
The turnaround against Barcelona had made the near-impossible realistically achievable for Reds fans but this was one miracle too far.
With destiny not in their own hands on this occasion there was nothing Liverpool could do to influence one final, dramatic last-day twist.
Having taken an early lead they were top of the league for 21 minutes until City recovered from a surprise early deficit at Brighton.
The Seagulls exceeded expectations by scoring but even at Anfield, a place where hope springs eternal, there was a resignation a team 17th in the table with just three draws in a nine-match winless run heading into the weekend would not produce the goods for them.
Fans’ pessimism was not misplaced. However, it has been the only occasion in this wonderful season in which fans have shown a lack of belief.
Klopp’s vow when he arrived at the club was to turn doubters into believers and with a fourth final – two in the Champions League – pending in three and a half years and a nail-biting title challenge completed he has achieved that.
If they were to lift a sixth European Cup on June 1 against Tottenham in Madrid it would be no small consolation.
Mohamed Salah, back in the side after concussion, winning back-to-back Premier League Golden Boots with 22 for the campaign – sharing it with Mane and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – is another sign of the quality and consistency Klopp is now getting out of this squad.
It has not gone unnoticed by principal owner John W Henry, who congratulated Klopp on the Barcelona win in a trans-Atlantic phone call on Tuesday but was here in person to see the season’s league climax.
But it was Mane, the player who has had the best second half of the season, who broke the deadlock and had fans dreaming of what might be after 17 minutes.
Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold combined down the right and Mane sidefooted home his 21st league goal of the season via a deflected cross from the England full-back, whose 12th Premier League assist set a new single-campaign record for a defender.
A roar reverberated around Anfield which, at first, was a false alarm about a ghost goal at the Amex but then genuine news filtered through of Brighton scoring first to send the noise levels rocketing.
For 83 seconds the ground was filled with hope and unbridled joy, only to be quelled moments later when Sergio Aguero’s equalised for City.
Still Liverpool pushed and Salah volleyed over before Matt Doherty hit the crossbar with the visitors’ only chance of the half.
With the realisation the title was gone the hosts came out flat after the break and Wolves should have capitalised. However, despite decent chances for Raul Jimenez and Diego Jota, they did not.
Mane’s diving header from another Alexander-Arnold cross, in the 82nd minute, ensured the day ended on a high and Madrid now awaits for one last shot at glory.