It was, in the understated words of Manuel Pellegrini, a “happy day”. There was nothing unusual about the 2013/14 Premier League season in that it was played out over the course of 38 games in ten months, but an extraordinary sting in the tail saw the destination of the title more or less decided in the space of four unassuming hours in the April sunshine.
Liverpool blinked first, and how. The story of their collapse at home to Chelsea has been well-documented but it would have meant nothing had Manchester City not beaten Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park later that same day. “I talked with the players before the game not to be thinking about the result of Chelsea and Liverpool,” said Pellegrini, who hailed a “professional” 2-0 victory.
Fate dictated that those same fixtures be played five years later in similar circumstances. Liverpool entered this weekend top of the table, with third-placed Chelsea visiting Anfield. City, in second, travelled to Palace hoping, with their game played first instead, that they could apply some unwelcome pressure.
The first goal was sumptuous. Kevin de Bruyne, starting after playing a single minute against Tottenham on Tuesday, staked his claim to start in the quarter-final’s second leg with a delightful through ball into Raheem Sterling. Perhaps eager to atone for missing a gilt-edged opportunity earlier in the game, the forward gathered the pass and finished wonderfully past Vicente Guaita.
It was a sensational counter-attacking goal from a team that enjoyed 77.5% possession in the first half. Palace had their chances thereafter, but City rarely relinquished control in another “professional” display, with Sterling and Gabriel Jesus cancelling out Luka Milivojevic’s free-kick.
It encapsulated the task Liverpool face to dethrone England’s champions. Their struggles in Europe should not be ignored but City have now dropped 30 Premier League points since the start of last season; Tottenham (32), Arsenal (33), Chelsea (34) and Manchester United (35) have all dropped more this campaign alone. Palace themselves have dropped 27 since beating Pep Guardiola’s side in late December.
The absence of Fernandinho, as it was in that defeat, was felt by the champions. But it had far from the same cataclysmic effect, and did not prevent them from securing a ninth straight Premier League win.
Only 11 teams have bettered that run in the competition’s history. At a time when the stress of not only a title challenge but a simultaneous push for two other trophies has never been higher, that is a quite remarkable feat.
They cannot yet be considered the best team in English history, although that could change come May. But City are undoubtedly held to the highest standards of any Premier League team ever. The advent of social media, the nature of a reactionary media, a general increase in dismissive attitudes and the proliferation of potential challengers has threatened the normalisation of brilliance. And therein lies the point: this really is not a normal level of consistent achievement.
By full-time at Anfield, history will have either repeated itself or Liverpool will have learned those incredibly harsh lessons of five years ago. But City are unlikely to relent either way as they sprint towards the Premier League finish line with no signs of stitch.