Neil Humphreys: Pep's empire strike back
Man City's title retention marks beginning of a blue dynasty
Pep Guardiola raised his arms towards the away end. He smiled. The Manchester City supporters blew the roof off.
|(Glenn Murray 27)||(Sergio Aguero 28, Aymeric Laporte 38, Riyad Mahrez 64, Ilkay Guendogan 73)|
Their hero held the pose, just for a few seconds, to savour the magnitude of his achievement, to acknowledge the true beginnings of a football dynasty.
City had just scored their fourth in their 4-1 victory at Brighton and Hove Albion, confirming back-to-back English Premier League titles and underlining the terrifying threat of long-term dominance.
They held off Liverpool by a point, but a much larger point had been made.
No EPL manager has delivered consecutive titles since Sir Alex Ferguson and even he didn’t do it quite like Guardiola.
City won last year with 100 points. This time around, it was 98 points.
And the Spaniard is one FA Cup final win away from a domestic treble, the first in the history of English football. This isn’t mere domination. This is a fledgling dictatorship.
As City’s supporters sang: “Are you watching Merseyside?”
The jibe was cruel because it was so accurate. The whole world was watching one club take systematic ownership of a sporting competition.
The end of an unforgettable season also feels like the beginning of an era that may prove less memorable.
But nothing should diminish City’s astounding success, even if Guardiola didn’t make it easy for himself. He never does.
Like a cerebral masochist, he tries to increase the intellectual pain, as if the challenge of retaining the title isn’t already tough enough.
He handicapped himself with his own line-up. Was it a 4-1-2-3, a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3? Had Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez been given any positional instructions beyond floating around the grass like a runaway lawnmower?
They were all over the place. So were City. So were our emotions, for 38 minutes, as Guardiola’s tactics made less sense than giving Mahrez his first start in a month.
Guardiola’s tendency to over-think crucial contests was evident once more. He needed a clear head as his disorganised, disoriented players threatened to lose theirs.
Over at Liverpool, Juergen Klopp was busily doing the opposite, with a familiar line-up and that unmistakeable commitment to relentless counter-pressing. So the Reds went ahead. Of course they did.
And then Brighton went ahead at the Amex Stadium. Of course they did. A final ride on this season’s demented roller-coaster demanded nothing less.
City were jittery. Brighton recognised their opportunity to play history-shaping party-poopers.
Chris Hughton’s men play one way, defensively, relying on set-pieces, so how City missed Glenn Murray’s leap at a corner, defied belief.
Brighton had gone ahead in the 27th minute, the Brighton who had mustered just two wins from their past 17 games. That Brighton.
But their lead lasted 83 seconds. Sergio Aguero has a habit of soothing squeaky bums on the final day, so it seemed fitting that he slipped into the box in the 28th minute and tucked away David Silva’s flick-on.
On paper, Liverpool were still champions. On the pitch, no one was so easily fooled. The momentum had shifted. Brighton’s Cinderellas were surely not going to the ball a second time. They fell asleep beneath it instead.
From a corner, Aymeric Laporte helped himself to a free header from six metres.
City returned to the top of the table in the 38th minute, the 34th time that the leadership had changed hands, or was it the 35th time? It was hard to keep up in a title race that has been both a marathon and a sprint.
Even the City players showed little enthusiasm for celebration, the overwhelming emotion being relief. The joy could come later.
And it did, in the 64th minute, in one glorious moment that encapsulated the success of Guardiola’s project.
In the tightest space, Mahrez swivelled so violently he gave his marker whiplash. He then lashed a stinging drive into the roof of the net.
In one moment, Mahrez had vindicated his selection and his transfer fee. Some £60 million (S$106.3m) had bought the shot that retained the title.
Once Ilkay Guendogan delivered City’s fourth with a ferocious free-kick in the 73rd minute, the party really started. A fourth title in eight seasons deserved nothing less.
A giddy title race ended not with a coronation, but a confirmation. City have annexed the English Premier League. Liverpool fought valiantly, but they lost to more than a club. They lost to an empire.
BRIGHTON: Ryan, Saltor (Montoya 84),
Duffy, Dunk, Bernardo, Knockaert, Kayal, Bissouma, Jahanbakhsh (Locadia 67), Gross, Murray (Andone 68)
MAN CITY: Ederson, Walker (Danilo 88),
Kompany (Otamendi 86), Laporte, Zinchenko, Guendogan, D. Silva (de Bruyne 78), Mahrez, Sterling, B. Silva, Aguero