LIVERPOOL, England — For Liverpool, the wait goes on, but when you have waited 30 years to become champions of England, what’s another few days in the grand scheme of things?
The perfect script would have seen Jurgen Klopp’s team — the runaway leaders at the top of the Premier League — defeat Everton in the 236th Merseyside derby on Sunday before clinching the title at Anfield, albeit in front of empty stands because of the COVID-19 safety protocols, in Wednesday’s home game against Crystal Palace.
But this game always felt distinctly different, and nothing like normal, from the moment Liverpool stepped into their changing room at Goodison Park — a portable cabin in the players’ car park. No wonder the game did not deliver what it would usually promise.
“Football looks slightly different, but I take that,” Klopp said. “It was a real fight. Both teams showed they understand it is a derby. Intense, physical, all players were all in, but we didn’t have enough chances. Most of the time we were dominant, but they had the biggest chance.”
And what had been a simple equation — two wins and the title is in the bag –has now become somewhat more complex because of the congested nature of the Project Restart fixture list, which must cram 92 games inside 47 days.
If Manchester City lose against Burnley at the Etihad on Monday (and City haven’t lost at home to Burnley since 1963) then Liverpool can still seal the title with a win against Palace this week. But the form guide points to a City win, followed by a Liverpool victory on Wednesday. If that proves to be the case, Liverpool could then be crowned champions while sat at home watching television if City drop points against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Thursday.
Only time will tell, but Liverpool and City have been — for the past two years now — so far in front of everybody else that it would be no surprise if at all boiled down to the clash between the two teams on July 2.
As it stands, that game is due to take place at the Etihad, but the fixture continues to have an asterisk against it due to the possibility of it being staged at a neutral venue amid concerns of Liverpool supporters travelling en masse to celebrate outside the stadium if their team gets the result they need. Expect high-level talks in the coming days if City vs. Liverpool proves to be the title-decider, but if that game is the one that could seal the title for Klopp and his players, what a way to win it — against the side that has dominated the Premier League for the past two seasons.
Liverpool would have wanted to get the title wrapped up as quickly as possible, though. They would also have wanted to win it at Anfield. But their failure to defeat Everton in their first game back since the coronavirus pandemic halted play in mid-March has removed the simplicity from what had been an incredibly simple narrative this season.
Liverpool just won and everyone else trailed in their wake. They had been so consistent, so much better than the rest, that they went into this game at Everton with a 22-point lead over second-placed City.
Until the league was suspended, Everton fans had been fearful of this game being the one that would have decided the title for their bitter rivals. Back in March, with Liverpool blowing away the competition, it could have been a rout. But the 100-day shutdown has inevitably taken the edge of Klopp’s team. Against Everton, they looked like a side in the early stages of preseason, working on form and fitness, without the drive and intensity that we had come to expect from Liverpool.
And it helped Everton. Their winless run against Liverpool now stretches back to October 2010 — a 22-game sequence — but they created the best chances to win this game, with Tom Davies hitting the post in the 79th minute and Richarlison forcing a crucial save from Alisson two minutes later. Liverpool’s best chance did not come until two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the game, when Fabinho’s free kick was tipped over by Jordan Pickford.
With a typical derby crowd, and the atmosphere that comes with it, we may have ended up with a winner. But when each team had momentum, there was no backing from the stands and dominance quickly faded away. That is an unfortunate consequence of football behind closed doors — which is essential right now — but it is right when fans claim the game will not be the same until they are allowed inside stadiums once again. There was one supporter outside Goodison Park, who seemed determined to create an atmosphere by playing a series of tunes on a saxophone, but it only added to the sense of the surreal.
So Liverpool continue to wait. Five more points will be enough, but who knows where or when they will get over the line?