Liverpool - "If you are second you are nothing," said former Liverpool manager
Bill Shankly. But rarely can a runner-up have been more proud of falling
just short than Liverpool in the Premier League this season.
Shankly won three league titles on Merseyside in the pre-Premier
League era and built the foundations for two decades of dominance that
endured even after he departed.
Yet even he could not conceive of amassing 97 points in a league
season, let alone that mark only being good enough for second place.
Liverpool's points tally was not just a club record, but the
third-highest in Premier League history, behind only Manchester City's
98 this season and City's haul of 100 points in romping to the title
Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp's men, it will be Pep Guardiola's
champions they have to beat again to end a 30-year wait for a league
title next season.
"As long as City are around, with the quality they have, the
financial power and all that stuff, it's not that any other team will
pass them easily," said Klopp, whose side lost only one league game all
season, to City in January, and still missed out.
"You need to be very, very close to perfection to win the Premier League as long as this is the case."
City's wealth in the decade since the club was bought by Sheikh
Mansour, a member of Abu Dhabi's royal family, has transformed the blue
half of Manchester into serial winners.
Sunday's title triumph was their
fourth in the past eight seasons, but City have not always made the most
of their new-found wealth, drifting under Roberto Mancini and Manuel
Pellegrini after previous title triumphs.
Guardiola is the point of difference. The Catalan has now won the
league in eight of his 10 seasons as a top-flight coach in three
different countries with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.
Worryingly for the competition, Guardiola insisted City will only get stronger next season.
But the notoriously intense Catalan also has a history of not overstaying his welcome.
Next season will be his fourth in Manchester, matching his longest
managerial stint so far at Barca, after which he required a year's
sabbatical, citing exhaustion.
"I cannot deny I am so tired, but at the same time winning the title
gives you a lot of energy," said Guardiola on Sunday. "Winning is so
Liverpool's fate in the coming years may ultimately depend on how long the drug of winning sustains Guardiola at the Etihad.
There will also be a fear on Merseyside that Liverpool have come
close before, most notably under Rafael Benitez a decade ago and Brendan
Rodgers in 2013/14 and failed to take the next step a season later.
The stars may not align the same way next season. Huge goalkeeping
errors from Everton's Jordan Pickford and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris kept
Liverpool on City's coattails with late winners.
City may have sped away into the distance had Riyad Mahrez not
blasted a late penalty over the bar when the sides met at Anfield in a
0-0 draw in October, while the champions suffered shock defeats in
December to Crystal Palace and Leicester thanks to wonder strikes from
Andros Townsend and Ricardo Pereira.
However, unlike previous near misses when Xabi Alonso and Luis Suarez
soon departed for Spain, this Liverpool side look built for the long
Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker have been tied down to long-term contracts.
Flying full-backs Andy Robertson, 25, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, 20, should only get better with age.
Big summer signings Fabinho and Naby Keita grew as the campaign went
on and should kick on in their second season in the Premier League.
"We knocked on the door pretty hard this season," said Robertson.
"They know we are here and hopefully here to stay now. Next season I
am sure we won't lose anyone and, if we replicate this season, we can't
ask much more."
Sometimes, second is more than nothing.