If comedy is all about timing then, in the case of Liverpool’s three-decade pursuit of a league title, so is tragedy.
Since they were knocked off their perch by the arrival of a certain Scot, Liverpool have longed for nothing more than to reclaim the championship, yet the club has developed a maddening tradition of mounting its title bids at exactly the wrong time.
In 27 years of the Premier League era – an era that has coincided almost exactly with Liverpool’s loss of supremacy – only four title challenges have emanated from Merseyside, the current one included. All four have pitted Liverpool against one of the great modern sides. The previous three were doomed pursuits.
The first came in 2002, when in April an excited Gerard Houllier declared his side “10 games from greatness”: his Liverpool side were in the last eight of the Champions League and a point off league leaders Arsenal with five games to play.
But greatness eluded them. Liverpool hardly fell away – they won four of their final five league games, and indeed nine of their final 10 – but they simply could not quite catch a majestic Arsenal side who won their last 13 on the trot, dropping points just once after mid-January. Liverpool had finished second best – but there was no shame in that.
Seven years later, with Rafael Benitez now helming the ship, Liverpool co-starred in a white-knuckle two-way title race.
The opposition this time was Alex Ferguson’s last great Manchester United side and it was the season they hit their peak: its attack was a rotating cast of Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Berbatov, and its defence, where Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic kept guard ahead of Edwin van der Sar, went 1,032 minutes without conceding a goal – 11 consecutive clean sheets.
Yet a defiant Liverpool kept the pace in a league campaign that saw them beat United 4-1 on their own turf and, remarkably, only lose two games all season. When the clocks went forward, the north-west enemies were neck and neck.
But after a fortnight in April when a pair of once-in-a-career displays from Federico Macheda and Andrey Arshavin tipped the balance towards United, Ferguson’s side stayed a nose ahead and Liverpool’s fine late run – nine wins from their last 10 games – was matched exactly by a murderously unrelenting United, who went on to take the title.
Liverpool had finished second best – but there was no shame in that.
And then in 2013/14, a youthfully exuberant side spearheaded by Luis Suarez and steered by Steven Gerrard led the way as a breakneck campaign turned into its home straight.
There was something of the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling about Brendan Rodgers’ team, who had finished a lowly seventh the season before, but their freewheeling momentum appeared utterly unstoppable as they embarked on springtime run of 11 straight league wins, scoring a faintly ludicrous 38 goals in the process.
We all know how that one ended. But perhaps more to the point was the performance of eventual champions Manchester City, who, despite the heroics of Anfield’s Sturridge-Suarez-Sterling triumvirate, outscored their rivals and indeed set a new English football record for the most goals scored across a single season: 156 in all competitions.
This was a football club of unprecedented wealth and a team whose spine consisted of four modern icons in Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, all of whom were playing out of their skin. Liverpool had finished second best – but … Well, you get the picture.
If the lesson here is that history has a funny habit of repeating itself, then this season’s events certainly fit the bill. Once again Liverpool find themselves in a genuine title race, silverware glinting on the horizon as they approach the final hurdle.
Once again it is a team straining every sinew to stay in contention, and once again only a flawless run-in will do. But, just like in 2002, 2009 and 2014, even a perfect finish may not be enough to overhaul a Terminator-like opponent intent on redefining the concept of title-winning form.
Last season, Pep Guardiola’s City side broke pretty much every record going as they cantered to the Premier League title with five games to spare: most points, most away points, most points ahead of second, most wins, most away wins, most goals, best goal difference and most consecutive victories.
As they steamed to the title with laughable ease, even the most reasoned pundits were compelled to ask whether Guardiola’s side were the best England had ever seen. They very possibly were.
Twelve months later, City have scored 10 more and conceded 15 fewer that at this stage last season, while remaining in contention for all four trophies.
It’s no leap to suggest that this City side is, on the whole, an upgrade on last year’s and, with 19 wins from their last 20 games, it is also one peaking at the right time. Yet again Liverpool, in almost masochistic fashion, have picked exactly the wrong year to mount a pursuit of their great white whale.
In this sense Liverpool in their modern incarnation have been the inverse Leicester City: never leaving the sport’s upper regions yet timing their title bids with exquisite misfortune and somehow contriving to come away trophyless, the club’s misery compounded and its mythology turning ever more sepia-tinted.
The logic from free-marketeers and sports pundits alike is that greatness encourages greatness, that the excellence of one’s competitors is what causes motivation to burn and potential to be fulfilled.
The evidence is there in Messi and Ronaldo, Coke and Pepsi, Marvel and DC – and indeed in Liverpool’s four most recent title-challenging sides, who would surely not have performed as they did if their opponents had not set the bar so inhumanly high.
But on Merseyside, you suspect, they would welcome just one year where the opponent in question was a little less great, a little more human.