We’re right back where we started.
When the Premier League kicked off in August we all knew Manchester City would be their own biggest opponents. Their squad was simply too powerful and played a brand of football too attractive. Only complacency could disrupt their march to yet more glory.
After the Citizens disposed of the meagre threat of Manchester United on Wednesday night, and with just three games left to play, it’s advantage Manchester City.
But their march has not been altogether uninterrupted. Liverpool have proven to be more than adequate opponents. Quite stellar in fact. They lurk just one point behind City.
The Reds have gripped to the ankles of City like a possessed pitbull, ensuring they never run too far away; scaring them into looking over their shoulders at every turn.
That fear has led Pep Guardiola to drive his team past what we assumed was their peak.
Although last season’s blitzkrieg was fun, the Red threat has forced the champions to squeeze out the last drops of their reserve: tactically, mentally and physically. The margin for error could hardly be smaller.
Guardiola knew that going into the game at Old Trafford. He knew that sneaking a point from their hated rivals just wasn’t good enough any more. Fortunately for City, he didn’t lack the guts to make a move.
There seemed to be some debate over the extent of Fernandinho’s injury when he was forced off in the second half. His coach, however, wasted no time with debate and threw on Leroy Sané. Forced or not, he could have made a number of more conservative moves.
With Ilkay Gündogan pushed to the base of the midfield, City’s added width tore United apart.
Luke Shaw looked like a child lost in a grocery store once he had both Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling bearing down on him, stretching him in different directions.
After the left back had been exposed for the first goal, Sané then took to terrifying his colleague on the right. Again, no one could offer any response to the overhaul of tactics.
Guardiola got his just rewards for his nous and willingness to execute.
Now, only Leicester City, Burnley and Brighton stand in the way of them defending the Premier League for the first time. There could be easier opponents, but the blue half of Manchester will be confident that the worst has been hurdled.
In many ways, the leading narrative is not of their success, but of Liverpool tragedy. Jürgen Klopp has plotted a course that, in all likelihood, will end in 97 points. For context, that’s higher than any of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 13 winning campaigns — a couple of which were 42-game seasons. It’s more than José Mourinho’s 2004-2005 Chelsea win that conceded just 15 goals. It would be good enough to beat Arsenal’s Invincibles.
The German manager will be cursing the heavens should the last three games leave his team as runners-up. What more can he do? He took a side wallowing in mediocrity and turned it into something great. He avoided all the pitfalls his predecessors tumbled into. When fate set up the Reds to slip against Chelsea once more, he spat in its face. He’s lost one game all year.
But that’s what great teams do— they bring out the best in each other. No matter how this ends, it’s scary to think how these newfound rivals will respond come August.