There was a stretch of time on Sunday, just as there have been a handful of moments over the last month, where it seemed like Manchester City would finally drop points. Burnley, at their Turf Moor home, were paragons of the “bend but don’t break” philosophy, experts in the dark arts of shithousery. City looked frustrated, and though they faced little pressure on defense, a goal seemed unlikely to come.
Inevitably, the goal did come. When it did, it was by millimeters. After a scramble in the box, Sergio Agüero found the ball between his feet and managed to pop the ball goalward with just enough power so that Burnley defender Matthew Lowton couldn’t get to it in time before it crossed the goal line by a dog’s whisker:
Less than three centimeters stood between City and a potentially title-losing draw:
The Premier League season is long: 38 grueling games, interspersed for the top teams with Champions League and two domestic cups. So that City haven’t been at their free-scoring, domineering best for a while now is not a surprise. Even as they give both their fans and Liverpool fans heart attacks by not dominating, City are doing what they need to do: scraping together wins in what will likely have to be the second-longest winning streak in Premier League history if they are going to lift their second consecutive league trophy.
Liverpool have been their own kind of incredible since what looks like a pivotal stretch of four draws from late January to early March. On Friday, the Pool Boys demolished league-worst Huddersfield 5-0 at Anfield, the team’s sixth consecutive decisive victory across all competitions (and 10th consecutive victory overall). The last time Liverpool were seriously challenged was on the last day of March, in a wild 2-1 victory over Tottenham that was their biggest remaining stumbling block in the league (all disrespect to Chelsea, who rolled over in a comfortable 2-0 win for Liverpool a couple of weeks back).
The Reds haven’t dropped points since a 0-0 draw to city rivals Everton on March 3, and for the entire season, their sole loss remains the best game of the season: a 2-1 defeat to Manchester City on January 3. Like Sunday’s City-Burnley match, that game also featured a millimeters-thin line between goal and no goal:
While some legitimate obstacles remain in the paths of both teams (Liverpool have traditionally been bad at St. James’ Park, where they face Newcastle this weekend, and they have to host a scary Wolves team on the last day of the season; City host a formidable and confident Leicester City club on Monday, one led by Brendan Rodgers, the former Liverpool manager who famously came so close to winning the league with the Reds just a few years ago), it’s likely that both will win out, handing City the title and Liverpool a 97-point season that will be the best ever for a team that didn’t win the title, and third-best overall.
Oftentimes, title race narratives focus not on excellence but on prominent mishaps, a la the Gerrard Slip. But that way of thinking contradicts the realities of soccer. Even if, say, Aymeric Laporte were to slip in the final seconds of City’s season-ending match against Brighton, leading to a draw that hands Liverpool the title, City will not have “bottled” the title away. While there are real pressures on players now that there weren’t back in August, points are worth the same whenever you pick them up, and City’s season will not be a failure because they only racked up 96 points instead of 98.
Similarly, Liverpool’s four draws in 2019 should not be cast as evidence in dumb debates about whether Liverpool “choked.” Liverpool’s 2018-19 season has been very nearly flawless, and in any other season (the only exceptions being this season and the last), they would be walking to the title. Moments are valuable, because they help us contextualize a larger narrative, but in soccer’s long grind, they are but a handful of instants in a marathon of consistency.
Points dropped on the final matchday cost the same as points dropped on day one, and thanks to the best title race England has ever seen, those dropped points have been fewer and farther between that ever. That the two best teams in England are going down to the wire and with such ludicrous point totals is a gift that no slip, goal-line technology, or run of just-okay form can take away from everyone who’s been invested for the last nine months. Whoever wins the title after all this will be the proud holders of one of the best accomplishments in European club soccer history. Perhaps more importantly, whoever finishes second can hold their head up high, knowing they lost only because of the finest margins in a sport where the line between success and failure, glory and dejection, can be decided by just a few millimeters.