Jonathan Liew: 'Liverpool are known to deal in miracles - and they need one now'
Jurgen Klopp's men find themselves on the verge of being the most impressive top-flight runners-up in the history of European football
On. And on. And on. And on. Perhaps we should have known all along that this was how it would turn out. First Manchester City win. Then Liverpool win. Then City win again. Then Liverpool again. And so on *ad absurdum*, like a sort of a grotesque performance art, a Stewart Lee comedy routine, a John Isner serve-fest in men's tennis, the paradox being that you know - theoretically - that it must stop at some point, but to admit that would defeat the entire purpose of the exercise. Please don't let this stop. Please stop.
One of the more arresting strands of this title race has been its explosion of the usual cliche you hear from footballers that they "never look at the table". Nobody was bothering to peddle that line after Liverpool's dramatic 3-2 win at St James' Park on Saturday night.
They know, better than anyone, exactly how the land lies, and exactly what fate awaits them. They know that unless City fail to win against Leicester on Monday night, or at Brighton on Sunday, they face the prospect of being the highest-scoring runners-up in the history of elite European football, with 97 points.
"I suppose it's good for the neutral," Liverpool's Jordan Henderson joked wryly. "City are a great team, but so are we. We've competed right to the very end. Whoever gets it will deserve it. From our point of view, we couldn't have done any more. We need to finish on a high at Anfield [against Wolves on Sunday], and then pray that something - a miracle - can happen."
It was the first real admission from the Liverpool camp of the odds stacked against them. And there certainly seems to have been a shift in tone in this respect over the last week or so, following City's away wins at Manchester United and Burnley, the toughest fixtures of their run-in. Liverpool's optimism that City would inevitably slip up at some point has eroded and eroded into bare, blind hope. Now, it's official. We're in miracle territory.
Now Liverpool players are openly discussing the prospect of falling short. "If we don't do it next Sunday and City are crowned champions, we can be proud of what we've done," Andy Robertson said. "So we're in there, we've stuck together, and hopefully we get 97 points. If that's not enough, then we've done everything that we can."
The irony is that the idea of the miracle - the trope of the impossible comeback, the divine flourish - is one that has written itself into Liverpool's mythology over recent years. Olympiakos in 2004. The FA Cup final in 2006. Borussia Dortmund in 2016. And of course the miracle to top them all, at Istanbul in 2005. This is a club that deals in miracles, a manager happy to evoke them, a squad that believes in its ability to manufacture them. The problem is that this is a different sort of miracle: the sort they need someone else to pull off for them.
"I'm sure Leicester, who are a great team, will go and give everything," Henderson said. "Like you saw from Newcastle. I'm sure Brighton will, I'm sure Wolves will. That's football: everyone wants to win, no matter what stage of the season you're at. Everyone wants to cause an upset. Hopefully there are another couple of twists and turns to come."
"Manchester City are unbelievable," Robertson admitted. "They've had eight days to recover from a heavy schedule, so we're expecting them to get off to a good start. Hopefully Leicester can hold on."
Was this a kind of mind game? Anointing City as champions-elect in order to mess with their heads? Probably not. When you've got two clubs who have claimed 186 out of a possible 219 points between them, we're likely beyond the stage of mind games. More plausible was that Liverpool, having thrown everything they can at City and failed to land a blow, are now cheerfully clutching at straws. Would Henderson give his old manager Brendan Rodgers a call ahead of Leicester's trip to the Etihad? "No," he replied firmly. "Well, maybe. I'll think about it."
"I'm a Celtic fan," Robertson said with a grin. "Brendan left us, so maybe he owes me one."
Still, Liverpool have done all they can. Only the most churlish could fault them. Every time they've needed to respond, they've responded. Every time they've needed to score a late goal, they've scored one. When Fabinho needed to sink to the turf to win a cheap free-kick late on against Newcastle, down he went. We're beyond niceties now, beyond vacuous notions like credit or aesthetic, beyond bothering about whether anyone likes them. The point is the point, and only three of them will do.
And perhaps not even that. To score 97 points and not win the league - as may happen if they beat Wolves at Anfield next Sunday - is a phenomenon virtually without precedent. Sporting Lisbon scored 86 in just 34 games in the Primeira Liga a few seasons ago, only to be pipped by Benfica. Manuel Pellegrini's Real Madrid scored 96 and finished second behind Barcelona. Martin O'Neill's Celtic scored 97 and lost to Rangers on goal difference.
These are strange and incomprehensible times. And perhaps the most intriguing element of this museum piece, this competitive freakshow of a title race, is its internal contradictions.
A race in which the lead has switched dozens of times but very little has essentially changed. A dynamic in which otherworldly excellence has taken on a routine, surgical feel. And now a situation where a team that has thrashed and fought and run and toiled in the pursuit of crafting its own destiny will gather in front of a television on Monday night, utterly powerless, utterly supplicant, and yet eternally hopeful.
© Independent News Service