On the opening day of the season, I’d seen something so tantalising in this Liverpool team that I immediately believed they would be genuine title contenders.
Of course, forecasting anyone as a contender in the Premier League after a single match is fraught with danger, but it was clear to me that Jurgen Klopp’s men intended to stay the distance.
And in accruing 97 points, and losing just the one game, they certainly did. The fact they are favourites to win the UEFA Champions League shows just how good this team has become.
I couldn’t help but return to that story this week to see how the Reds measured up against the criteria I set them to win the title. It was a five-part challenge:
1. No more dropping points against lowly opposition.
2. Is there a genuine alternative to Mo Salah?
3. Will Alisson become one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers?
4. Making the Xherdan Shaqiri gamble pay-off.
5. Can Klopp balance his emotions for an entire year?
Honestly, if these were the five potential problems that were identified at the start of the year, Liverpool fans couldn’t be prouder of how their team rose to answer all of them.
For starters, the “genuine alternative” to Mo Salah was Sadio Mane, who ended up sharing the league’s golden boot. You can’t ask for more.
I’ve seen him up close in person – in a Merseyside Derby, no less – and his feet were astonishing. As good as anyone in world football. This season, he added goals to his already magnificent game.
His rise tempered the need for Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi to find form, although the latter’s late season heroics boosted his stock.
As for Alisson, he absolutely rivals Ederson as the best goalkeeper in the league. He’s 26 now and I suspect he’ll be between the posts at Anfield until he’s 35, matching the decade that Pepe Reina spent on Merseyside. Sometimes, you must pay a price for quality and the £66.8 million fee looks justified.
The Xherdan Shaqiri gamble didn’t pay off spectacularly, but, equally, it didn’t backfire either. Six goals in 24 games, many of them off the bench, equated to a pass mark for a player who helped ease the creative load on those around him.
Let’s be honest: the real worry was that Shaqiri wouldn’t get game time and would start becoming a problem in the dressing room. He hasn’t, and that should be counted as a win – and another tick for the man management skills of Klopp.
Which brings us to the main man. “Kloppo” had one of his finest years as a manager, if not his finest. It is one thing to win the Bundesliga when Bayern are in disarray; it is another to push Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City when they are at their peak, and leave the rest of the big four in your wake, in the most competitive era of world football’s most competitive league.
He balanced his emotions, his tactics were spot on, his squad rotations were sharp and the players loved him. He didn’t lose it in the media glare, either.
Which leads us to the final point – and the first point on that list. Dropping points against lowly opposition. It’s hurt them over and over in previous seasons.
Liverpool only lost one game (against City), a remarkable feat in itself. But they did drop some points when they could ill-afford to: back-to-back draws against Leicester and West Ham.
In the space of six games, they also drew against Manchester United and Everton. If we’re nit-picking with a magnifying glass, it’s hard to win a title taking only two wins between January 30 and March 3.
In the end, perhaps the problem wasn’t so much Liverpool but Manchester City.
From December 30 until the final day of the season this week, City took 54 of a possible 57 points. Even better than Arsenal’s Invincibles; even better than City’s record-breaking efforts of last year. Put simply, they sprinted the whole second half of the marathon.
This is the fourth time Liverpool has finished second in the new millennium, but never have they improved their performance the following season. Of all the challenges one can set them, perhaps it’s the only one they are yet to master.