As Matt Ritchie blasted home a penalty to give Newcastle the lead against Manchester City on January 29, many in Liverpool were surely starting to think that this was finally their year.
City’s defeat meant that Liverpool had the chance to once again go seven points clear of their nearest challengers with only 14 games remaining of the Premier League calendar. Having avoided any further slip-ups following their defeat to City earlier in the month, this was a chance to reassert control over the title race.
City players were visibly unsettled following that defeat, and it felt like a Liverpool win against Leicester City the following day would leave them with one hand on the Premier League trophy. Liverpool had dropped just two points against their remaining 15 opponents in the first half of the season and there was no reason to think they would slip up against the vast majority of them, Leicester included.
What transpired at Anfield, however, was a complete shift in momentum and the ultimate derailing of Liverpool’s title bid. Coming up against a Foxes side who were on the cusp of sacking Claude Puel as their manager, this should have been a walk in the park for Liverpool, especially after Sadio Mane gave them the lead after three minutes.
Liverpool, however, were insipid and listless. Leicester fought their way back into the game through Harry Maguire on the stroke of half-time and could have won it in the second half if they had managed to convert one of several gilt-edged chances.
Post-match, Jurgen Klopp was defiant to the point of stubborn. The German insisted that “1-1 was absolutely OK” and that he didn’t see the draw as dropped points. After all, Liverpool found themselves five points ahead of City when they were only four ahead two days previous.
But it felt as though this was a massive opportunity blown and that became even more apparent four days later, on February 4, when a ravenous City took the lead after just 46 seconds at home to Arsenal. City overcame the setback of a Laurent Koscielny goal to eventually run out 3-1 winners and close the gap at the top to two points. Even at this early stage of their eventual 14-game winning run, it seemed as though City had a newfound belief.
The following day, Liverpool looked a shadow of the side that had beaten virtually every team they had come up against. Taking the lead in fortuitous and controversial circumstances against West Ham, Liverpool were soon caught cold from a clever free-kick routine and again had to settle for a point. The gap now stood at a far more fragile-looking three points.
Liverpool appeared to get over their smallest of slumps with a convincing win over Bournemouth, but probably endured their worst result in their very next league game, on February 24. Playing away to a rejuvenated United side who had been ravaged by injuries, Liverpool showed far too much respect to their most bitter rivals.
United had lost Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial prior to kick off, before losing Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and substitute Jesse Lingard to injuries during a crazy first half. Marcus Rashford was also clearly carrying a knock, but Liverpool never forced the issue.
They didn’t have a single chance of note against one of the most makeshift teams they could have hoped to encounter and played with far too much fear. A week later, Liverpool were overtaken when they shared the derby day spoils with Everton and, from there, the blue half of Manchester never looked back, despite Liverpool’s best efforts.
It is hard to be overly critical of a team who finishes with 97 points, but City were always capable of putting a ridiculous winning run together, something they proved last season. By drawing with Leicester, Liverpool simply afforded them the momentum.
This was a title race with fewer slip-ups than ever before. Between them, Liverpool and City dropped less points than Manchester United did when they won the league in 2011, and the same amount of points as Leicester did three years ago.
However, the quality of the rest of the league has never been weaker, the disparity between the top teams and the rest never greater. A mini-slump like the one Liverpool endured is likely to be terminal in this modern, two-tiered Premier League.
They blinked first, when blinking is no longer tolerated.