The next aim for Manchester City if they wrap up everything on Sunday is utter domination and it is hard to know what more Jürgen Klopp’s team can do after their efforts this season
The first time Manchester City found themselves in this position, entering the final game of the season with the Premier League title still up for grabs, it will probably always be remembered for what happened when a team once regarded as English football’s Slapstick XI found out it was not just that lot on the other side of the city that could conjure up football‑bloody‑hell moments.
Even after all the wild and eccentric stories of the past week, from Jürgen Klopp machine-gunning swear words into various television cameras, trying to make sense of the night of all nights at Anfield, to the teary Mauricio Pochettino, down on his knees, genuflecting to Tottenham’s fans in the Johan Cruyff Arena, I still cannot recall too many occasions to match the seminal day when City won the Premier League with the last kick of the season.
One was Manchester United in the 1999 European Cup final and everything, to be specific, that George Best missed when he decided in his wisdom that the game was over and – true story – left the stadium at the 90-minute mark. The other is Arsenal winning the old First Division at Anfield in 1989, with Michael Thomas running through the middle, Brian Moore’s voice picking up speed in the commentary box (“It’s up for grabs now!”) and another of those moments when, well, you can almost feel sorry for all those daft teacakes who don’t “get” football.
In the Premier League years, though, what could really beat the final-day drama of City’s first title of the modern era? “The only word to describe it is bedlam,” my match report began on that May afternoon in 2012. Though I must confess there was an intro of an entirely different nature sitting on my laptop, waiting for the button to be pressed, a few seconds before Sergio Agüero gave us what has become known as his 93:20 moment. “Manchester City will never forget the day they blew the Premier League title,” it read. Then Agüero pulled back his right foot and, with one last swish at goal, irrevocably changed the landscape of English football.
That was City’s first league championship since 1968 and if they win at Brighton on Sunday it will be their fourth title in eight seasons. Pep Guardiola could then, in theory, become the first ever manager in England to win a domestic treble when his team take on Watford in the FA Cup final next Saturday and, if everything goes according to plan, that would make it 10 major trophies from a decade under the ownership of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, including five in the last 15 months. Not as many as their owners would have liked, perhaps, when City have rubbed up against the Champions League like sandpaper. Still enough, though, to leave the clear impression that, domestically, they are going to take some shifting for as long as Abu Dhabi is bankrolling the club. And, unfortunately for all the other clubs in the Premier League who hold their own ambitions, there is absolutely no indication that arrangement is going to change any time soon.
There is certainly a valid question to be asked about who, realistically, will be capable of stopping City in the coming years if Liverpool reach 97 points by beating Wolves on Sunday, accumulating what would be the third highest total there has ever been in a 38-game season, and it still would not be enough for Klopp’s team to have their first decent look at that elusive trophy – 3ft 5in high, 25.4kg and 24-carat silver – and remind themselves what it is like to call themselves the champions of England.
That, in short, has to be the next aim for City if they wrap up everything on Sunday: utter domination. It would be the first time the club have ever retained the title, but can they go on to win it three, four, five times in a row? Can they emulate what Liverpool did in the 1980s? Or Manchester United during the peak years under Sir Alex Ferguson when the trophy seemed to find its way back to Old Trafford like a homing pigeon? If it does remain in City’s possession – a club, lest it be forgotten, that did not make any provision for a trophy cabinet when they moved grounds in 2003 – how long before Liverpool, or any other team, release that grip?
None of this is to overlook the possibilities that are open to Liverpool tomorrow afternoon, especially when the last week should have reminded all of us why, in football, it is dangerous to assume too much.
Yet there was not a single team within 18 points of City last season and, barring an almost freakish achievement from Klopp’s team, it would have been another procession this year. Spurs, 25 points back, have lost more league games, 13, in one season than Guardiola has suffered throughout three years in Manchester. Chelsea have, strictly speaking, narrowed the gap, but only because that gap was actually more of a chasm. Arsenal, too, if we are going to be generous again. Yet they remain tiny specks in City’s wing mirrors – Chelsea 24 points off the top when it was 30 the previous season; Arsenal with a 28-point deficit as opposed to 37 in Arsène Wenger’s final year.
As for Manchester United, there is an element of tragicomedy that Ed Woodward, their executive vice‑chairman, has been telling people he confidently expects the club to be credible challengers next season. Much better, I would say, to listen to Ole Gunnar Solskjær when he says it will be “miraculous” if United can win the league. It might not have been what their supporters wanted to hear, but what other logical conclusion is there when it feels as if the whole of English football is rubbernecking in United’s direction?
Here’s a statistic to sum up how life has changed for the two Manchester clubs: City have scored more league goals in the last two seasons than United have managed in the previous three, 197 v 187. It is one of the few occasions City have outperformed their neighbours in every domestic competition and Woodward, having decided the manager of Molde had better credentials for the job than Pochettino, should probably just be relieved if Solskjær can find them a way out of Nowheresville.
All of which brings us back to a Liverpool side that have not only navigated their way to a second successive Champions League final but could end the season with seven more points than Arsenal’s “Invincibles”, 19 better off than Kevin Keegan’s “Entertainers” at Newcastle United and 21 higher than possibly the most venerated Manchester United side of all time, going back to their Treble of 1999.
For Liverpool, there would be no shame to finish second with those numbers. Equally, there would be no pleasure, either, and a fair amount of heartbreak bearing in mind the club’s pursuit of their first league title since 1990 is often described as an obsession.
The record books in years to come would not include an asterisk to let it be known how unfortunate they were. The Liverpool fan who rang TalkSport asking for a trophy to be presented to the runners-up would not get his way. The wait would go on.
Points-wise, Klopp would have outdone Bob Paisley, Bill Shankly and every other manager in Liverpool’s fabled history (the highest previously being the 90 accrued by Kenny Dalglish’s side over a 40-game season in 1987‑88), but his team would still have lost a seven-point lead to finish second at the club where Shankly famously said first was first and second was nowhere.
In which case it is not going to be easy for the current manager, or his collection of brilliantly talented players, to know what more they can do, especially when they will realise this level of performance for City is now the norm.
Keegan always remembers how much it took out of Newcastle in 1995-96 when their title race with Manchester United went to the last day. Newcastle’s total of 78 points that year was the best in their history, but they still had to accept there was another side who were even better. “There was an emptiness about finishing second,” Keegan recalls. “I wasn’t sure we would ever get a better start to the season, or if we had it in us to go to all those places where we had come away with three points and do it again.”
If the answer had been yes, Newcastle would have won the league the following year. Instead, they lost two of their first three games, as well as being whacked 4-0 by Manchester United in the Community Shield. Newcastle finished as runners-up again but this time they won five fewer games. Keegan left the club in January and 75 points was enough to take the title back to Old Trafford, seven clear of the team in second position.
That must be the fear for Liverpool if all their sustained brilliance towards the top of the table comes to nothing, if the ribbons on the championship trophy turn out to be light blue, City make it 198 points from two seasons and the team in red find themselves being acclaimed as the best runners-up there have ever been.
Liverpool would still have an opportunity to claim their sixth European Cup and if they do beat Spurs in Madrid it would make them the third most successful club, behind Real Madrid and Milan, in the history of the competition.
What, though, of the Premier League? Would it be realistic to think they can they do it all again? Can they really be expected to improve on what they have just done and find another way to beat City? Because who else is going to stop Guardiola and his players from looking down from the top of English football, enjoying the view and trying to make out everybody else in the distance?