It took 14 straight victories from Manchester City to fend off Liverpool and win a Premier League title race in which neither side dropped a point for over two months, and the runner-up lost once and wound up with the third-highest point total in history.
For 83 seconds, there was real drama. For 21 minutes, Liverpool held the title in its hands. But then normal service was resumed and Manchester City, this implacable, remorseless force, brushed Brighton’s challenge aside to record a 4-1 win, its 14th straight victory and with it a second straight league title, fourth in eight years and sixth all time. The club derided by Sir Alex Ferguson as noisy neighbors is rather more than that now.
City did wobble, but December feels like a long time ago now. In the second half of the season, Pep Guardiola’s side dropped only three points. Liverpool will think back to January and the game at the Etihad when Sadio Mane, via some odd ricochets between Ederson and John Stones, was 11.7 millimeters from giving Jurgen Klopp's side the lead. Had that game been won, its lead would have been 10 points. As it was, City won, the gap came down to four, and, by the beginning of March, when Liverpool drew 0-0 at Everton, it had been eroded entirely.
Under normal circumstances, the loss of a seven-point lead would be a sure sign of a choke, but these are not normal circumstances. Liverpool collected 97 points, the third-highest tally in Premier League history. The top two has never been so strong, so dominant. If that is a recurring feature, perhaps the league will begin to worry about a lack of competitive balance, but, for now, it’s perhaps best simply to salute the quality of the top two.
It had briefly seemed there might, at the very last, be a twist. Liverpool had gone ahead early against Wolves through Mane and then a false rumor of a Brighton goal sent a wave of celebration around Anfield. Barely had the realization dawned that the news was fake when Brighton scored for real, with Glenn Murray glancing in a corner at the near post. For the first time since January 29–its last defeat, to Newcastle–Man City was behind in a league match.
Guardiola, who had been stalking his technical area in anxiety from the first whistle, took off his strange hooded cardigan and, within 83 seconds, 33 seconds of played time, Sergio Aguero, capitalizing on a Bernardo Silva flick and some doziness from the Brighton left back Bernardo to play him onside, slipped in a neat finish. Seven minutes after that, Aymeric Laporte evaded Murray to head in a right-wing corner from Riyad Mahrez, and City had the lead both in the game and the as-it-stands table for good.
From there, City never looked like losing its lead. Its method this season has been based on taking early leads and then controlling the game–and so it was again, despite the early scare. Brighton battled gamely enough given it had nothing to play for, with its Premier League survival having been secured last weekend, but for long periods it simply couldn’t get the ball.
While the lead was only one, there was always the chance that Brighton might pinch an unlikely equalizer, but that possibility disappeared after 63 minutes. Mahrez had missed a late penalty at Anfield in October that loomed over the title race so many months later, and there lingers a sense that he is yet to justify the $78 million he cost last summer. He was a slightly surprising inclusion in the starting lineup here–one that perhaps raises doubts about Leroy Sane’s position at the club–and he had not played particularly well when he feinted past Lewis Dunk and smacked a shot with his right foot–his weaker one–via a slight deflection into the top corner. An Ilkay Gundogan free kick made it 4-1 and absolutely confirmed the league title with 18 minutes remaining.
A second Mane goal wrapped up a 2-0 win for Liverpool on the day, and at least meant it had done what it could to apply some pressure, but that run of four draws in six games between the end of January and the beginning of March in the end proved fatal. The margins are impossibly fine: to lose only one game and not win the title seems almost incredible. The Champions League final against Tottenham in three weeks offers a potential golden consolation.
The oddity is that, given the choice of one or the other, Liverpool would probably rather have won the Premier League and City the Champions League. There will be among some at City, perhaps, a mild sense of frustration at another premature exit from that competition. European success remains the one thing missing from Guardiola’s reign at City, but the knockout nature of the Champions League means there is a substantial amount of luck involved in its latter stages. In the league, when consistency is rewarded, City again has been supreme. An unprecedented domestic treble could be secured in the FA Cup final against Watford next week.
Liverpool has been exceptional this season, but City has been even more so.