This was a Premier League title won by Liverpool – emphatically so – but also one lost by Manchester City.
Jurgen Klopp’s champions have been relentless in their pursuit to end the club’s 30-year wait. They may yet prove to be the best top-flight title-winning side ever seen in English football. Only a handful of others throughout the game’s history could possibly compete with them.
But City could, or are at least talented enough to do so, and Pep Guardiola cannot afford to ignore that fact between now and the start of next season, whenever it eventually arrives. Liverpool have won the title with seven games to spare, with all-time records in their sights and with time to kill, despite being up against a truly great side.
It was not such a cakewalk in May of last year. Liverpool were runners-up then but could look at their total of 97 points – the third-highest in Premier League history, one fewer than City’s 98 – take pride in their efforts and hold their hands up having been beaten by a superior opponent.
A year and a bit later, it is not that simple for City. The gap between the top two is not one point but twenty-three. It may yet widen further. Guardiola might argue that Liverpool’s pace was simply unbearable for those in the chasing pack. He would have a point. It is the best-ever, after all.
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But after tonight’s defeat at Stamford Bridge, City are projected to end with 77 points. That would not only be far behind the totals set in Guardiola’s last two title-winning campaigns, but even one point fewer than level with the total set in his first year at the Etihad.
Regardless of Liverpool’s quality, how do you account for that likely 20-point deficit when compared with last season? It is down to defensive lapses like that which led to Christian Pulisic’s breakthrough on Thursday night, which too often undermine City’s undeniably superlative attacking play.
Benjamin Mendy had enjoyed a promising Project Restart before this game, drawing praise for his performance against Arsenal in particular, but losing the ball 60 yards from goal and overcommitting on the recovery tackle is indefensible.
And though City are always able to fall back on Kevin De Bruyne’s brilliance, they know by now it is not always enough. The move which led to the decisive penalty was another swift Chelsea counter-attack, cutting through City’s lines until it resulted in a six-yard box skirmish and Fernandinho being sent off for a deliberate handball on the goal-line.
But City’s title defence did not end in any meaningful sense here. It did not even end during this calendar year. It ended back in the autumn, back when the unrelenting pace set by both sides last season meant that draws were the new defeats and defeats were practically death blows.
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When City lost to Norwich and Wolves in the space of a month, it was always hard to see a way back. Once Liverpool beat their closest challengers at Anfield to go nine points clear, that felt truly significant. There have been five more league defeats since – the most Guardiola has suffered in a single season.
City are still a truly brilliant side, as demonstrated in the dominant wins against Arsenal and Burnley. Their ceiling is arguably higher than that of any other side in world football, but their floor is most certainly lower than Liverpool’s on the evidence of this season, and that is what has done for their title defence.
Whether it be the failure to replace Vincent Kompany, the injuries to Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sané, the difficulties of replacing Fernandinho in midfield or the strangely porous press, City began the season with too many complex problems and did not solve them quickly enough.
You would not bet against them rising again, but for now they can only wait for next Thursday at the Etihad, where they will potentially give Liverpool a guard of honour. It will be absolutely deserved, for a team that could be the greatest English champions ever seen, but City and Guardiola will wonder what might have been.
/ 3 years ago
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