Man City win Premier League: Title retention adds layer of invincibility
Manchester City let Liverpool dream for 83 seconds before slamming the door shut on any possibility that the last day of the Premier League season would provide one final dramatic twist in the tale.
This was the time it took for Sergio Aguero to put Manchester City level after Glenn Murray had stunned the visiting fans basking in glorious Sussex sunshine in Brighton's Amex Stadium. And for the moment to arrive when this compelling battle for the title finally swung decisively in City's favour.
Manchester City had been sleepwalking into trouble. It had arrived. Liverpool's lead over Wolves at Anfield already had them on top of the time-honoured 'as it stands' table and now City had an added obstacle to overcome.
The team Pep Guardiola has built is too strong, mentally and when measured in talent, and had come too far to be denied so close to the finishing line - and so it proved. Murray's moment actually turned out to be the shock to the system they required - the push towards glory they needed.
And yet, for those few seconds, Manchester City supporters were silent. Manchester City's players stood still, shocked. They feared the worst. They, rather like those who had travelled to watch them, were lethargic, lacking in urgency and suddenly left facing the nightmare.
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How those 83 seconds must have dragged for those thousands, for Manchester City's players and for manager Guardiola who instantly cast aside his trademark grey cardigan. Superstition? The soaring temperatures? Or simply the stress of the possibility that this thrilling story was to have the most painful of conclusions for the Catalan?
Brighton's supporters, with Premier League status safely assured, revelled in City's brief suffering. It may have only been 83 seconds but that is time enough for the worst-case scenario to form even in minds now so accustomed to victory and success. It was the first time they had trailed in the Premier League since they lost at Newcastle United on 29 January, their last league defeat.
And then, as he has done so famously before against Queen's Park Rangers in 2012 to win the title, Manchester City's greatest goalscorer Aguero made a defining final day contribution, pouncing with an angled finish to change the mood, the mindset and most significantly the destiny of the Premier League title.
Yes, Guardiola's side still needed to score again to secure the victory they required to finally keep Liverpool at bay - but there was a sense of the inevitable once Aguero proved once more he is Manchester City's man for all occasions.
Aymeric Laporte, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan delivered the final blows in a title battle with Liverpool that has turned into a season-long face-off between two teams - and two managers in Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp - of the highest calibre.
It was a tightrope walk for less than two minutes but City kept their balance and eventually strolled imperiously to the three points that continues their domestic supremacy.
Manchester City can now add the Premier League to the League Cup. The prospect of an unprecedented domestic treble is on the table when they face Watford in the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday, 18 May.
The Premier League table tells the story and for all Liverpool's brilliance they came up against a team that proved to be one point better than them.
It was a suitably miniscule measure of victory after a campaign settled on the finest margins, from the 11.7mm separating John Stones from an own goal against Klopp's side in January to the 29.51mm that ensured Aguero scored the winning goal at Burnley to put City back on top with two games left.
Manchester City went into the history books by racking up 100 points to win the title last season, but when the celebrations died down and they made their way back north to Etihad Stadium for their title celebration on Sunday night this may have proved to be an even sweeter, more satisfying triumph.
The statistics build a monument to Manchester City's brilliance over these two stellar, title-winning seasons.
In the last two campaigns they have amassed 198 points, scoring 201 goals. This was their 14th straight victory and their 32nd this season, equalling their own record set last season.
City were the first since Manchester United a decade ago to retain their crown and they did it without the comfort blanket they made for themselves last season. This was a dogfight as Liverpool and Klopp tracked them every inch of the way only to end the smallest step behind.
Manchester City are decorated in compliments about their style, elegance and creation - and yet this title triumph was the result of players with abundant natural gifts mining every facet of their character and quality.
Liverpool's relentless pursuit forced City into a sudden death quest to retain their title where they could not afford to blink in their last 14 games as they assembled a remarkable sequence of success to retain their crown. If City had slipped in just one of those games, the title would have gone to Anfield. It was a remarkable run to claim the prize.
Klopp's Liverpool were on their shoulder or ahead of them in a call-and-response race to the tape, which finally came into view for Guardiola and his players here in the Sussex sunshine. When the challenge of Murray's goal was thrown down, City answered it in emphatic, ruthless fashion.
When City went out of the Champions League quarter-final to Tottenham in agonising fashion, it was a shattering blow.
The questions were posed. How will they react? How will it hit Manchester City mentally and physically? Will it derail their title challenge?
The answer - they locked down even more.
City ground out 1-0 wins against Spurs, Burnley and Leicester City and brushed aside Manchester United. Not many marks for artistic merit but maximum for the fortitude of champions.
It says much about Liverpool that they assembled 97 points and lost only once in a season which, in every other year, would have ensured their first title since 1990.
It says even more about Manchester City that they demonstrated the concrete-clad mentality and quality to ensure Liverpool finished second.
Guardiola's City have shown that artistry alone does not make champions. It must be bolted on to heart, character and a refusal to yield even in the face of opponents as outstanding and enduring as Liverpool.
The 3ft 5in Premier League trophy hoisted high by Vincent Kompany has been dwarfed by the scale and quality of this title pursuit as Guardiola and Klopp traded blows before City delivered the coup de grace at The Amex Stadium.
Manchester City have responded when the stakes and jeopardy were at their highest, particularly when they faced Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on 3 January.
Liverpool knew victory would put them 10 points clear, a gap that would have surely been insurmountable.
Guardiola knew defeat for City would be decisive and they secured a 2-1 victory that became their most important of the campaign. It kept them in a race they would eventually win.
City's title triumph is also of huge significance psychologically, both now and in the future.
They will surely feel as if a layer of invincibility has been added to their armoury. If they have survived this sustained season-long assault Liverpool have mounted on them and prevailed, City will feel they can come out winners in any domestic circumstances.
And Liverpool, whose season has been almost flawless, could be forgiven for feeling that if 97 points cannot navigate them around Manchester City, what must they do to end that 29-year wait for the trophy they crave most of all?
City are built on the old reliables such as Kompany, Aguero and David Silva, but this season the full bloom of Raheem Sterling has provided an added dimension to a star-studded squad.
Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson and the flawless Laporte have made key contributions and it is a title win brought back home without the services of arguably their finest player, the Belgian Kevin de Bruyne, for long periods when he suffered so many injury problems.
The gifted teenager Phil Foden, a key component of City's future, made his mark with the vital winner against Spurs at Etihad Stadium.
Liverpool are not going away under Klopp but City may still feel they have just seen off as big a challenge to their supremacy on home soil that they will face.
This has been a golden season in the Premier League as the lead changed hands 32 times before the final day, but in the end continuity was the order of the day as the champions put back-to-back triumphs in the record books.
The Premier League has provided a special season. Manchester City have proved, by leaving Liverpool in second place, that they are a very special team.