SSeveral stories unfolded at once in Selhurst Park, even when it seemed like nothing was happening. Manchester City got off to a slow start and failed to get a shot on goal in the first half, but emerged as complete winners, a fact that sums up this season’s title race.
The fact that they could ditch mid-table opponents with something close to a dark side, assembled at an average cost of over £ 42 million per player, says a lot about the depth of the team and City’s pockets. Their third title in four seasons will be confirmed if Liverpool help them out by beating Manchester United on Sunday, and that also tells a story.
It’s tempting to smear Liverpool as the worst champion since Andy Ruiz Jr, but that doesn’t really add up. A closer comparison may be to Pheidippides, the messenger of tradition who completed his marathon mission and then declaring “joy we have won!” Collapsed and expired. Let’s not get into whether Jordan Pickford has an alibi for around 490 BC. The thing is, the mere effort to beat City for the title last season after having done it agonizingly close the year before finally broke Jürgen Klopp’s squad. Klopp may think that he should have sent his players to any available vacation destination as soon as they clinched the title last season instead of spending the last seven games chasing the 100-point milestone in vain.
The thing is, of course, that for a while City seemed to be the broken side. After eight games this season they lagged in 11th place. A month later, the city still seemed strangely destitute. After reaching a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in December, Pep Guardiola demanded an upgrade for his next match, but gasped to a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom. They used to tear teams to pieces, but their acuity seemed to have faded, inspiration only flickered. However, Guardiola had other ideas.
His great achievement this season is that he found new ways to stimulate his team and new ways to win. Last season, eight teams made more lineup changes than eventual champions Liverpool, but this season no one has made as many as Guardiola. Being able to do that is a luxury; Knowing how to do it well requires insight. That, and the shortcomings of the others, is what allowed City to bounce back and find an irresistible step.
The coach achieved outstanding performances from players who, for different reasons, had contributed only irregularly before, notably Ilkay Gündogan, João Cancelo and even John Stones. Riyad Mahrez has had his best campaign to date for the club and Phil Foden has been expertly included in the squad, evolving from a rare starter (he started just one of 10 games from late October to early January) to a key creative influence.
None of Gündogan, Foden, Stones or Mahrez played Crystal Palace and neither did Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias or Bernardo Silva. All will likely start the second leg of Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain, when City will aim to dominate the French champions as they did in the second half of the first leg. During that match, a French television microphone caught Idrissa Gueye grumbling, as he left the field after receiving a red card due to frustration, that: “They are playing with us like you would not believe it.”
That’s been a recurring sense this season – that City have been playing with opponents, manipulating them at will, keeping them at arm’s length while looking for ways to bring them to their knees. They have been more patient, more considerate than ever, simultaneously trying to mislead opponents while solving their own problems.
At Palace this became evident again. Guardiola made eight changes to his team since the game against PSG and used a different formation, with two forwards instead of none and three centrals instead of two.
At first, City seemed a bit unsure of themselves going forward, with Raheem Sterling and even Sergio Agüero wavering. The 21st minute brought the almost incomprehensible sight of Aguero trying to catch a difficult pass to Sterling when he himself had a clear shot from eight meters.
But City never lost his mind. They found their rhythm in the second half. Soon Agüero showed his enduring class. In the 57th minute he ran with a clever cross from the left by Benjamin Mendy, who delivered several. It took a touch to get up and then threw the ball into the net before the goalkeeper understood what he was doing. Palace was still reeling when, 84 seconds later, Ferran Torres made the denouement seem inevitable.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism