Sunday’s finale to the Premier League season, and the ridiculously tight title race it finally concluded, was shocking and thrilling, full of big twists and turns along the way. It was also, somehow, familiar. Three years ago, Manchester City shook off a final-day deficit to come back and beat Liverpool to the Premier League title in dramatic fashion. Yesterday, Manchester City shook off an even bigger final-day deficit to come back and beat Liverpool to the Premier League title in even more dramatic fashion. Once again tension turned into bliss for City fans, hope turned into disappointment for Liverpool supporters, while everyone else just got to enjoy the sensational finish to this crazy ride.
Despite trailing Aston Villa by two goals 75 minutes into the final game of the season on Sunday, City roared back to life and glory, scoring three goals in about five minutes to take a 3–2 victory, which won the club its fourth league title in the Pep Guardiola era. At no point on Sunday was Man City actually behind Liverpool in the table, though it sure felt like the reigning champs had blown it for a while there. Aston Villa took the lead via a Matty Cash header in the 37th minute, which ramped up the pressure on the Citizens. After former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho added a second Villa goal the 69th minute, it felt like we were witnessing a historic collapse in the making:
At the moment of Coutinho’s goal, a roar at Anfield signaled to the Liverpool players that there was a chance. If City was in the danger zone, Liverpool was squarely in the hope sector: an early goal from Wolverhampton Wanderers put the Reds on the back foot, but the hosts slowly took control of the game. Sadio Mané scored the equalizer after a gorgeous Thiago flick in the 24th minute, but Liverpool needed to win and hope that, at the very worst, Villa would hold on for a draw against City.
Yet, despite holding a possession and shot advantage over Wolves, Liverpool couldn’t break through during a very tense second half that had fans keeping one eye on the field and one on their phones. It wasn’t until the 84th minute that Liverpool got its go-ahead goal, via a mess in the penalty box and a poke-in from Mohamed Salah:
But Salah’s goal came too late. Maybe, if Liverpool had taken the lead on Wolves while Manchester City was still losing to Villa, then the pressure on the Citizens might’ve proven too much to overcome. Instead, Salah scored after City had already pulled off its comeback, and that’s that. History didn’t just repeat itself for Liverpool; the reenactment was even worse. Thanks to some awful defending and goalkeeping from Aston Villa, City was able to do to its opponents—and to Liverpool by proxy—what Real Madrid did to City in the Champions League semifinals.
It began, and ended, with Ilkay Gundogan. The midfielder subbed on in the 68th minute and got to work, giving City more bite running from deep into the box than it had in a listless opening hour-plus. First, Gundogan got on the end of a Raheem Sterling cross at the back post, completely unmarked, for City’s opener. Next, fellow substitute Oleksandr Zinchenko found Rodri at the top of the box, and the Spanish midfielder passed the ball into the goal. Finally, Gundogan found himself at the same back post as the first goal, and a gorgeous Kevin De Bruyne low cross found the German for the game- and title-winner:
It’s not quite as heart-stopping as its famous comeback in 2012, in which City scored two goals in stoppage time to steal the title from Manchester United, but it’s close. What City did between the 76th and 81st minutes on Sunday was a hyper-compressed example of what it did all season: It turned on the jets, showed that it has more talent than pretty much everyone, and overwhelmed an exhausted opponent. No one in the world can score as many goals in quick succession as City, so that its season came down to one last flurry is a fitting end to yet another squeaker of a title race.
If there’s some solace to be had for Liverpool, it’s that they already ended the Premier League title drought in the COVID-afflicted 2019-20 season; surely, this one doesn’t hurt as much as it did in 2019 for that reason alone. Like that season, Liverpool also has a Champions League final to look forward to in order to dull some of this domestic pain, only this time it has the chance to complete a cup treble, having already won the League and FA cups.
Looking ahead to that, the main worry for Liverpool—beyond the need to mentally overcome this Premier League shortcoming—will be the health of Thiago, who got injured in first half stoppage time against Wolves. The club will likely need its No. 6 against a Real Madrid forged in the fires of the Champions League, and the six-day gap between games here will not be helpful for the Spanish international. Still, though, Liverpool has the opportunity to shake off its current disappointment, which is something that City would have lacked if it had collapsed.
It didn’t, though, and this is a deserved title for City in a season that got the ending it also deserved. These two clubs can’t really escape each other, having won the five most recent titles between them, twice with a one-point gap between them. Whether City gets back to its more dominant wins next year with the addition of Erling Haaland remains to be seen, especially since Liverpool will reload as it always does; the addition of the extremely cool and good Luis Díaz in January was step one there. I can’t promise that the Premier League will come down to the final day once again next season, but I also won’t bet against it. The margins between Manchester City and Liverpool are too thin to believe otherwise.
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