Sadio Mané double sinks Wolves but Liverpool’s title wait goes on

The first anybody knew about it was the tinny roar from the away end. It was the news every Liverpool supporter had been dreading and, football being the sport of schadenfreude, there was zero sympathy from the Wolves supporters who, for one day only, had chosen to serenade Manchester City, the champions of England.

That was the moment when Liverpool had to start confronting the harsh realities of trying to catch and overhaul a side of City’s durability, knowing that 97 points was not enough and that a season of sustained brilliance was not going to get its happy ending – not in the Premier League, anyway.

Shortly before, the updates from Brighton had told a desperate, longing Anfield crowd that maybe the ribbons on that trophy might be red, after all. Now everything had been turned upside down. The Wolves fans were singing about Sergio Agüero, as well as “City! City!” and, cruelly, “You nearly won the league”. Then the same happened again in the second half – twice, in fact – and by that stage everybody knew Liverpool’s gruelling wait for a league title, stretching back to 1990, was not going to end here.

Of course, Liverpool being Liverpool, they were determined not to let everything fizzle out with a sudden, damp silence. Anfield was far too proud to sulk or stew. Liverpool won, again, courtesy of Sadio Mané’s latest two goals and it is the first time in 39 years they have gone successive seasons without losing a single league fixture on their own ground.

Liverpool have equalled their club record of winning 30 times in the league, the last time that happened being 1978-79 over 42 matches. They have accumulated the third highest points total in history for a 38-game season and, yes, there is still the small matter of a Champions League final to come.

Ultimately, though, the only detail that mattered here is that they had finished second – the best runners-up, undoubtedly, there have ever been but second all the same – and at the final whistle it cannot have been easy for Jürgen Klopp and his players to try to disguise all that raw disappointment.

They certainly had a lot to take in bearing in mind the fast-changing emotions of a day in which Liverpool, for 21 minutes, had led the “as-it-stands” table. Mané’s opening goal arrived in the 17th minute and, in that first half, it was difficult to comprehend all the possibilities that were open – or, indeed, what could be believed and what could not.

For starters, how about that moment, nine minutes after Liverpool had taken the lead, when the drama suddenly went up another few notches? The roar started in the Main Stand and spread, left to right, growing louder and louder. It was the noise of a crowd that had been told City were losing. But it was a deception, a false alarm, a cruel way to play with everyone’s nerves.

For two minutes, at least. The next roar crackled round the stadium like electricity and this time it was real. Up in the directors’ box John Barnes was pumping his fists. Kenny Dalglish was checking his phone, grabbing the arm of the person in the next seat. His phone told him: Brighton 1 Manchester City 0.

For Liverpool the exhilaration did not last long enough. The next update came barely a minute later: a goal for City. Soon afterwards there was another one. In between, a pocket of Liverpool fans started to celebrate another phantom Brighton goal. But the reality was that City were winning and, after that, every significant update from the south coast was a bad one as far as Klopp and his players were concerned.

Amid this bran tub of emotions it was difficult at times to concentrate on what was happening on the pitch. It must have been strange for the Liverpool players, too, to know what was going on, what they could believe and what it meant. They also had to hold off a spirited response from Wolves and that was not straightforward when their opponents, in seventh position, wanted to show why they had finished higher than any promoted side since Ipswich were fifth in 2000-01.

To begin with, it was difficult for Liverpool to get through. Wolves defended deeply, hoping to spring on the counterattack, and looked relatively comfortable until Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deflected cross set up the opening goal. Mané rifled in a right-footed shot, first-time, from six yards out and Anfield heaved with excitement.

Until, at least, the updates started coming through about City’s recovery on the south coast. “Brighton came very close to an equaliser on the stroke of half-time,” the announcer George Sephton told the crowd at half-time, doing his best to soothe the mood. They know George here as the Voice of Anfield, playing his music and feeding in the scores. “So fingers crossed for the next 45,” he added.

Wolves had also come close to equalising, when Matt Doherty’s shot skimmed the crossbar, and for the first 20 minutes of the second half they looked the more dangerous side. Liverpool appeared weary, worn down possibly by all the drama and emotion of what happened here against Barcelona last Tuesday.

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But they kept going. Mané’s second goal was an 81st-minute header and, again, it came from one of Alexander-Arnold’s deliveries. It was the 13th goal that Liverpool’s right-back had set up this season, a record for any defender in the Premier League era. It also meant Mané pulling level with Mohamed Salah – as well as Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – with 22 league goals to finish joint-top for the Golden Boot. That, however, seemed a consolation prize compared with the party going on elsewhere.