In the end, it truly is the hope that kills you. When Sadio Mané scored for Liverpool early on in their game against Wolves, it was the start of a frustrating but ultimately fruitful game. The Reds brought it to the surprise seventh-place finishers, scooped up the goal they needed (and another from Mané in the dying embers for good measure), and then hoped that a barely not-relegated side could hold off the greatest team the Premier League has ever seen.
Simultaneously, on the south coast of England, Manchester City started off struggling against Brighton & Hove Albion, the 17th-place team in the Premier League and one that the Citizens had swatted away at home 2-0 back in September, and 1-0 in the FA Cup semifinals just last month. All City needed was win by any means necessary; be it a tight 1-0 win reminiscent of their Vincent Kompany-powered victory over Leicester City last week or a drubbing of the kind that City regularly hand out to the have-nots of the league.
Instead, in the 27th minute, just ten minutes after Mané scored at Anfield, Glenn Murray scored and, for just a little while, Liverpool had hope:
Though the goal took 27 minutes to come, it would be fair to say that Brighton weren’t lucky to get it. They had decided, with their place in next year’s Premier League safe and a spot as a historical footnote to the greatest title race in history in the balance, to bring the game to City, getting some good-looking attempts on their home ground while the visiting City fans grumbled in the stands.
So when Murray scored, the calculus shifted from “Manchester City just need one goal and to shut out the fourth-worst offense in the league” to “City desperately need two goals or they will be forever known as the 95 (or 96) point bottlers.” Luckily for City, they employ one of if not the best pure goalscorer in Premier League history, and so Sergio Agüero replied with an equalizer just 81 seconds later:
In a weird way, Agüero’s goal was not particularly relevant on its own. Yes, City needed it to claw back towards a win, but it would not have been enough on its own. It also didn’t come from a dominant stretch of City possession, the likes that always seem to eventually break defenses down into goals. It was a thunderbolt, aided by a beautiful pass from center back Aymeric Laporte and a tight angle finish not too dissimilar from Agüero’s famous 2012 title-winner. There was still hope at Anfield, hope that Brighton could survive just over an hour without conceding again. That hope wouldn’t even last 15 minutes.
Just as Brighton gave Liverpool a lifeline from a corner, so did City shut down any Merseyside delusions from a corner. Eleven minutes after Murray scored, Laporte once again found himself the key figure, coming into the box completely unmarked to nod in a header that served as the title decider.
Sure, City scored two more goals (a beautiful one from Riyad Mahrez and a celebratory firework from İlkay Gündoğan), but Brighton were never going to score a second against a City team that didn’t need more goals. With Laporte’s header, a season that came down to the very last day finally came to its end. It’s fitting that so much action was packed into such a small space of time, as this title, more than any in memory, was decided by the smallest of margins.
Not just the one point gap between 98-point City and the 97-point Pool Boys; not just that City and Liverpool drew their first game thanks to a missed City penalty, only to see the Manchester side win 2-1 in a game that decided the title more than any other, despite what Everton fans think; and not just the fact that neither team seemed willing to drop points in the run-in to the finish line. The Premier League was decided by moments of unexpected preciseness, human and technological alike: Kompany’s banger against Leicester, scored by a man who hadn’t even shot on target from outside the box in half a decade; the goal-line technology-aided goal for City against a tough Burnley side; and the by-millimeters near-goal in the Liverpool-City match on January 4.
The 11 minutes of heaven on Sunday may not have needed a superhuman shot or the robotic overlords of goal-line technology, but they fit the plot of a season decided many times over; first, City were unstoppable; then, Liverpool were going to win the league undefeated, only to draw too many matches in a key stretch of 11 dropped points in nine matches. Finally, the script had flipped one more time: Liverpool, masters of the unthinkable comebacks, were going to channel that spirit in the direction of a lowly also-ran 270 miles away, and were going to be rewarded with the most sought after title in their storied history.
For 11 minutes, Liverpool were as close to divinity as soccer teams can get, but in the realm of mortals, Brighton weren’t the heroic supporting character Liverpool needed. They were just one last dread-inducing roadblock for Manchester City, one more existential terror to fight away before raising back-to-back titles. Thanks to Agüero and Laporte and the slow passage of time during those 11 minutes, Manchester City reign supreme once more, and Liverpool will spend the summer lamenting the millimeters and minutes that stopped them once again.