A shot by Sadio Mane, on the only occasion that Manchester City’s defense allowed the Liverpool forward a chance, pinged off the post. The rebound arced towards City’s net again, after goalkeeper Ederson tried to corral John Stones’ clearance. Stones scurried back in time to clear off the line. Behind the line, really. Less than half an inch of the ball hadn’t yet crossed.
Only in the absolutist terms of goal-line technology was it not a goal.
Then, later on, at the other end, Sergio Aguero scrambled back up after crying, in vain, for a penalty kick on a slight shove. Bernardo Silva’s cross found his feet from close range but at an impossible angle. The Argentine spun and found a pocket to squeeze a shot through regardless, beating Alisson to his near post.
After an hour, Trent Alexander-Arnold dropped a cross onto fellow Liverpool fullback Andy Robertson, who cushioned it back across, just out of the grasp of the defense, for Roberto Firmino to nod it into an empty net.
And then a rampaging Raheem Sterling teed up Leroy Sane, whose game-winning finish caromed off one post, then kissed the other before finally making up its mind and deciding to trickle into the side netting.
A handful of moments. A handful of desperately close outcomes. Punctuated by enormous, jaw-dropping late saves, one apiece by Alisson and Ederson – the latter preserving City’s win. A game played so tightly, so well, at such a terrifyingly high level and tempo, producing margins so very fine. The pinnacle of the sport, between the two best teams in the world right now – by a fair distance.
And just like that, in seconds that amounted to less than a cumulative minute, the Premier League has a reignited title race. City cut Liverpool’s lead from seven back to four points by handing the Reds their first loss of the league season. Meaning the margin went from three games to two. With 17 games left to play.
It might not last, but for now at least, there is suspense in the Premier League. And that’s been such a rare thing. For all the hype about the world’s most popular league, which is maybe its best and maybe not, the race to the championship isn’t usually very competitive.
Last season, City seized first place on the fifth matchday and never relinquished it, claiming the title with 100 points, by a 19-point margin and a goal difference of plus-79. In 2016-17, Chelsea led for the last 28 matchdays and fairly sauntered to the title seven points clear. Even Leicester City’s upset to end all upsets was more comfortable than history will likely remember it. The Foxes won the league by 10 points, leading for 24 matchdays, and never letting go of first place after recovering from a wobble over the holiday season.
Need more evidence?
Jose Mourinho’s 2014-15 Chelsea led the league 37 out of 38 matchdays. In the end, the gap with City was a sizable but not-enormous eight points, but Chelsea had never really been challenged either. And in 2013, United won the league by 11 points as Sir Alex Ferguson rode into the sunset with a final title – two years after winning the league by nine points.
City’s 2014 league title, secured on the final day and with a mere two-point margin, was the last time we saw a real title race as Liverpool famously slipped up in its final games. And of course, in 2012, City won on one of the last kicks of the year from Aguero, moving the Sky Blues ahead of Manchester United.
The pulsating thrill of this season’s Liverpool-City title race may not last. The return of the Champions League in February could change the equation, depending how long both teams stay in the competition, how tough their opponents are and what kind of toll it all takes on their squads. Both teams are uncommonly deep, yet both also have vulnerabilities in key spots.
For now, City has the better outlook, having drawn a rudderless Schalke 04 in the round of 16. Liverpool has it much tougher, facing Bayern Munich.
But then Liverpool has that four-point gap at the top of the table.
So a real title race.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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