And so the wait is over. Perhaps this isn’t how Liverpool would have wanted to win its 19th league title, but after a 30-year drought, nobody involved with the club or supporting it will care too much. Just as Leicester City’s title four years ago was sealed by two other clubs at Stamford Bridge, just as Manchester United broke its drought in 1993 when Aston Villa lost to Oldham, Liverpool’s championship was confirmed in absentia, as Chelsea beat two-time reigning champion Manchester City, 2-1, to put the top of the table out of reach. It was truly won, though, by its consistent excellence between August and February, a reminder of which was offered by the 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace on Wednesday.
The decisive moment Thursday in London came with 12 minutes remaining, as Willian swept in a penalty after Fernandinho had been sent off for shoveling the ball away from a goalmouth scramble with his left hand. It’s a goal that will be remembered on Merseyside, but it will be performances such as Wednesday’s or the 4-0 win at Leicester on Boxing Day that will be celebrated. Liverpool thus becomes both the earliest, by fixture list, and latest, by calendar, side to win the league. It has seven games remaining, beginning at Man City on Thursday next week, in which to collect the 15 points that would set a new record points tally for a single season.
Liverpool, essentially, has maintained–perhaps even improved upon–its extraordinary standard of last season, when it turned in the third-best season in league history, only to fall to Man City, which had the second-best season, by a point. Man City, meanwhile, has not. When teams achieve such remarkable tallies, the slightest slip can be fatal. City had dropped eight points within the first eight games of the season; Liverpool has still dropped only seven.
There were plenty of indications here of the issues City has had. It has been just as good going forward this season as it was last, but there has been a serious downturn in its defending. Vincent Kompany was never replaced and has been badly missed, while doubts over Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones, as well as the lengthy injury suffered by Aymeric Laporte, have led to Fernandinho playing far more games than would have been expected at center back. That has had damaging consequences in midfield, where Rodri has probably been exposed more than would have been hoped in his first season in the Premier League.
City bossed possession for long spells on Thursday, but its high line had been caught flat on a couple of occasions when it was undone after 36 minutes. Left back has been another issue for City, with Benjamin Mendy struggling both with injury and form, and Mendy was badly at fault. It began with a City free kick deep in Chelsea territory. As the ball was cleared, there was a lack of communication between Mendy and Ilkay Gundogan, which allowed Christian Pulisic to pounce on the ball and break forward. Mendy got back, but his attempt at a challenge was rash, and the 21-year-old American, who began his time at Borussia Dortmund when Jurgen Klopp, now Liverpool's steadying force, was manager, skipped by the French defender before clipping a confident finish past Ederson.
Pep Guardiola’s side rallied after halftime, leveling through a brilliant Kevin De Bruyne free kick, and very nearly took the lead when Raheem Sterling hit the post two minutes later. But Chelsea again and again got in behind City; the penalty was just one amid a string of similar chances.
City must have known since Christmas its race was run, and it was a clear sign of its priorities that Sergio Aguero had surgery on his knee on Wednesday. He should be back for the start of next season and could conceivably be back for the resumption of the Champions League. With second place in the league effectively guaranteed, City’s focus is on the Champions League and, to a lesser extent, the FA Cup, in which it faces Newcastle on Sunday. Nevertheless, its performances against Arsenal and Burnley–a pair of wins by an aggregate of 8-0–served as a useful reminder of just how good it is in possession.
And that, really, is a reflection of how good Liverpool has had to be to finish such a margin ahead of this City.
"What I realized when I watched [the Burnley game] is, how is it possibly anybody is 20 points ahead of this team? So we must have done some things pretty well," Klopp said this week.
Liverpool pushed one of the greatest sides the Premier League has known to the limits last season. This season, it has broken it with its relentlessness. To do that after coming so close last year speaks not just of Liverpool’s quality, organization and energy, but also of a profound character. It’s up to City now to demonstrate similar resilience next season–although much may depend on the verdict given by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for its appeal of a two-year Champions League ban.
But that all is for later. As non-socially-distant fans gathered at Anfield and red smoke filled the air, this was about celebrating one of the greatest of all English league champions–probably statistically the greatest. With the long delay and the empty stands, the circumstances may have been weird, but that in no way diminishes the achievement.