Who would have seen this coming?
Way back in February when Manchester City had just lost at home to Tottenham and conspired to draw with Nottingham Forest, it looked as though their spluttering season would never get going. Even before a gruelling World Cup drained the energy out of so many players, Pep Guardiola’s side were struggling to find the ruthless consistency they’ve become synonymous with in recent years.
City, usually capable of going 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 even well over 20 games unbeaten hadn’t yet won more than three Premier League games in a row or even more than four matches in all competitions in succession. With the Blues unable to find any rhythm and Arsenal facing down every adversity to go eight points clear at the top of the table, it was hard to see the title remaining in Manchester.
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Then Guardiola worked his magic. He tinkered with the side, settling on John Stones to be his new Beckenbauer and suddenly everything started to change. City kept their control but suddenly were so much more purposeful with it. Erling Haaland started to be brought into play and began to hit the back of the net at an astonishing rate once more. Jack Grealish had been the one player to remain at a high level after the World Cup but found an even higher echelon as those around him returned to their best.
The City juggernaut began rolling once again and this time it was truly unstoppable. Since the defeat to Spurs on February 5, City have gone 23 games unbeaten and drawn just four times, with three of them coming in the away legs of Champions League knock-out ties. It has been a remarkable turnaround.
It would be hard to say Arsenal haven’t choked given the manner of their dropped points to Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton which saw them surrender their healthy lead but the challenge of leading the pack with a beast as fierce as City barring down is not easy. The fact that three draws are enough to all but derail a title challenge, with City’s comfortable win the final nail in the coffin, just shows the ridiculously high standards City have set for every pretender to the throne.
Now, what once seemed like a title race that would go to the wire, could be done and dusted this weekend. If a dejected Gunners with nothing to play for lose to Nottingham Forest as they fight for their survival on Saturday then City will be crowned champions but they’ll have the chance to do it themselves regardless on Sunday if they can defeat Chelsea.
The fact City can have the league concluded with two or three games to spare would be a massive bonus. Not only does it make what once looked like a tricky away double-header in the final week at Brighton and Brentford meaningless, but it gives City a good week where they can rest and recuperate ahead of the upcoming finals.
Guardiola will likely name his strongest starting XI in one of the three matches to ensure they’re all ticking along nicely, but there will be no need to exert themselves massively and everyone can be kept fresh. Recent matches, the European wins over Real Madrid and Bayern Munich especially, have been massively draining affairs both physically and mentally.
Jack Grealish has never looked as tired as he did after the draw in Germany and Kevin De Bruyne was dead on his feet before he set up the third against Madrid. A week of low-pressure and rest before two final, gruelling games, is exactly what City need to be at their best.
In stark contrast, it couldn’t be worse news for Manchester United. The cross-town rivals have no such luxury and cannot relax until their Champions League place is secured. Liverpool remain hot on their heels and one slip-up before they earn the six points needed to guarantee top four would be disastrous.
Erik ten Hag has been plagued by injuries to his squad all season and it’s clear his beleaguered squad is running on fumes. What they would give to have the pressure off for the final week. Especially since the FA Cup final is so massive.
Not only will United be competing to win the first-ever Manchester derby FA Cup final but they will also be bidding to stop their neighbours going within a game of matching their greatest success. The legacy of the treble is on the line just as much as the trophy.
But every possible advantage is going in City’s favour.