“If you are second you are nothing,” said former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. But rarely can a runner-up have been more proud of falling just short than Liverpool in the Premier League this season.
Shankly won three league titles on Merseyside in the pre-Premier League era and built the foundations for two decades of dominance that endured even after he departed.
Yet even he could not conceive of amassing 97 points in a league season, let alone that mark only being good enough for second place.
Liverpool’s points tally was not just a club record, but the third-highest in Premier League history, behind only Manchester City’s 98 this season and City’s haul of 100 points in romping to the title last year.
Unfortunately for Jurgen Klopp’s men, it will be Pep Guardiola’s champions they have to beat again to end a 30-year wait for a league title next season.
“As long as City are around, with the quality they have, the financial power and all that stuff, it’s not that any other team will pass them easily,” said Klopp, whose side lost only one league game all season, to City in January, and still missed out.
“You need to be very, very close to perfection to win the Premier League as long as this is the case.”
City’s wealth in the decade since the club was bought by Sheikh Mansour, a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, has transformed the blue half of Manchester into serial winners.
Sunday’s title triumph was their fourth in the past eight seasons, but City have not always made the most of their new-found wealth, drifting under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini after previous title triumphs.
Guardiola is the point of difference. The Catalan has now won the league in eight of his 10 seasons as a top-flight coach in three different countries with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.
Worryingly for the competition, Guardiola insisted City will only get stronger next season.
But the notoriously intense Catalan also has a history of not overstaying his welcome.
Next season will be his fourth in Manchester, matching his longest managerial stint so far at Barca, after which he required a year’s sabbatical, citing exhaustion.
“I cannot deny I am so tired, but at the same time winning the title gives you a lot of energy,” said Guardiola on Sunday. “Winning is so addictive.”
Liverpool’s fate in the coming years may ultimately depend on how long the drug of winning sustains Guardiola at the Etihad.
There will also be a fear on Merseyside that Liverpool have come close before, most notably under Rafael Benitez a decade ago and Brendan Rodgers in 2013/14 and failed to take the next step a season later.
The stars may not align the same way next season. Huge goalkeeping errors from Everton’s Jordan Pickford and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris kept Liverpool on City’s coattails with late winners.
City may have sped away into the distance had Riyad Mahrez not blasted a late penalty over the bar when the sides met at Anfield in a 0-0 draw in October, while the champions suffered shock defeats in December to Crystal Palace and Leicester thanks to wonder strikes from Andros Townsend and Ricardo Pereira.
However, unlike previous near misses when Xabi Alonso and Luis Suarez soon departed for Spain, this Liverpool side look built for the long term.
Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker have been tied down to long-term contracts.
Flying full-backs Andy Robertson, 25, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, 20, should only get better with age.
Big summer signings Fabinho and Naby Keita grew as the campaign went on and should kick on in their second season in the Premier League.
“We knocked on the door pretty hard this season,” said Robertson.
“They know we are here and hopefully here to stay now. Next season I am sure we won’t lose anyone and, if we replicate this season, we can’t ask much more.”
Sometimes, second is more than nothing. AFP