LIVERPOOL, England -- Liverpool are now within touching distance of the club's first league title in 30 years. They could even be champions within 24 hours if Manchester City fail to win at Chelsea on Thursday, but after beating Crystal Palace 4-0 at Anfield on Wednesday, the only red to be seen outside their famous old stadium was in the traffic lights on the deserted streets.
A year ago, Jurgen Klopp and his players were welcomed back from the Champions League final in Madrid by 750,000 fans on the streets of the city as they paraded the club's sixth European Cup. And with the 30-year wait to be crowned champions of England now almost over, you could expect similar scenes of passion and frenzy in normal circumstances. This, after all, is a club whose supporters relish their reputation as being the team's 12th man with all the noise and colour they bring to games, home or away.
But in a world turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, these aren't normal circumstances, and that was made abundantly clear with Liverpool's crucial win against Palace being played out with Anfield, closed to spectators, surrounded by what resembled a ghost town. The roads were empty, there were no stalls selling cheap merchandise outside the stadium, and a gated perimeter around Anfield -- patrolled by police officers and stewards -- ensured that nobody without official accreditation, certainly not a hopeful supporter, could get within 100 yards of the ground.
"Imagine how this stadium would've been full today," Klopp said at the end of the game. "All the people could have experienced it live -- that would've been amazing."
Winning this league championship was always going to be a strange sensation for Liverpool with their charge to the title halted abruptly by COVID-19, which led to the Premier League being suspended for 100 days beginning in mid-March, but it feels so strange to witness their final steps to glory being taken in deafening silence.
Having gone into the shutdown with a 25-point lead over closest challengers City, the only doubt over Liverpool's claim on the title was whether the league would be declared null and void in the event of football not returning in time to complete the 2019-20 season, but that was never a realistic prospect. Liverpool have been so dominant this season -- they have lost just once and drawn two of their 31 league games -- that they would always be regarded as champions, with or without an asterisk alongside their name. But as Klopp said last week, the only asterisk that should now accompany their imminent title success is one that symbolises the unique challenges his team has had to overcome to win the league "in this most difficult year."
Sunday's goalless draw at Everton was an underwhelming return to action for Klopp's team, though, and their failure to win at Goodison Park meant they could not seal the title with a win against Palace at Anfield. Winning on home turf would have been the perfect scenario, but after waiting so long, it is unlikely that anyone at the club will care where, or when, Liverpool's 19th title (one behind Manchester United's record of 20) is confirmed.
They can even afford to be choosy. Do they want to win it by beating reigning champions City at the Etihad next Thursday, in what would be a true baton-passing moment? Or would they rather Pep Guardiola's team trip up at Chelsea on Thursday simply to get the job done? If the latter happens, Liverpool could then travel to City expecting Guardiola's players to welcome them onto the pitch with a guard of honour -- COVID-19 safety protocols permitting, of course.
"We are in a good position, so hopefully we can get over the line soon," said Liverpool's opening goal scorer, Trent Alexander-Arnold. "We have to focus on ourselves. We are not hoping Man City drop points -- we know it's in our hands. We still have to go to City next week and get a result."
When Liverpool are finally confirmed as champions, the relief and joy could spark the kind of scenes that would normally have greeted this victory. They have waited so long that it would be unthinkable for Liverpool's supporters to allow the moment to pass without a party.
But football isn't staging any parties right now, which is a shame, because Liverpool deserve their moment. They deserve to break points records and winning-margin records this season, and they are back on course for those historic milestones after cruising past Palace.
Fittingly, Liverpool were set on their way with a goal by a local boy, with Alexander-Arnold opening the scoring with a 23rd-minute free kick. Mohamed Salah made it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time before Fabinho and Sadio Mane completed the scoring with a goal apiece in the second half. Palace could barely lay a glove on Liverpool, and they never looked like inflicting a first home defeat on the Reds since they became the most recent visiting team to win a league game at Anfield, in April 2017.
It was a rout and another clinical performance by Klopp's team, Liverpool's 23rd consecutive home league victory. But outside the stadium, the traffic lights continued to flicker from green to red as though nothing else was happening.
It might be different in 24 hours.