Man City again provide title drama as Pep Guardiola rectifies errors from his bench

Last-day exhilaration at the Etihad Stadium again as a big call from the City boss proved the right one overall

I swear you’ll never see anything like this again. But honestly, when Manchester City have a league title to win and lose on the last day, who knows what can happen?

They had been here before, of course. This was the fourth time they led a title race going into the final day in recent memory, the third at the Etihad, and one of those was just about the most extraordinary moment English football has ever witnessed. And just in case anyone needed a helpful reminder of it, the Etihad’s jumbotron replayed the ‘93:20’ moment shortly before the start of the second half, when Aston Villa were still just the one goal up.

You wondered if that lifted any of the increasing number of tortured expressions worn in the stands or if it was simply an invite to relive the deep anxiety of that day, rather than its release. The point of Sergio Aguero’s goal, commemorated for posterity outside this ground only last week, was that it was unique. A total one-off. You’ll never see anything like this again, et cetera.

And in a way, we didn’t. At no point during the afternoon were City not on the verge of being crowned champions. Liverpool did not lead while City were level or behind. The two best teams in the country, arguably in Europe and probably therefore the known universe, contrived to hand the other the title. For a good 76 minutes, Steven Gerrard was the only person invested in this title race to be holding up his end of the bargain.

Gerrard barely left the edge of his technical area all afternoon, his arms folded in his usual jumper, shirt and tie combination like a teaching assistant on his first day. Behind him, a rotating cast of tracksuited coaches stood in conversation. Every now and then, one of that number would waddle up to Gerrard, impart some wisdom and return to the brains trust. Since stepping into coaching, the Aston Villa manager has made no secret that he does the job by consensus.

It made for a contrast with Pep Guardiola, who stood isolated and agitated inside his own perimeter for the most part. That was never more the case than in the moments just before the introduction of Ilkay Gundogan, when a touch of interpretative dance was followed by a booming “Gundo!” - a demand to return to the dugout and get stripped, that could be heard over an admittedly muted crowd. That was City’s third change - meaning no Jack Grealish - and seemed as risky a call as the one to start with Fernandinho at centre-half.

You needed to be reminded in those moments that, as it stood, City were still top of the league. If Liverpool did not go ahead, Villa would need another four to make things interesting, another five to send the title to Anfield. Even when Philippe Coutinho put them two up, Gerrard met that goal as he did Matty Cash’s first - with a short, sharp celebration before coolly regaining composure. It was as if he knew that his and Villa’s - and let’s face it, his former club’s - job was far from done. He was wise to keep a lid on it.

There is a theory that City are susceptible to quick bursts of goals but here was one that went in their favour. There were three in five minutes to secure an eighth league title, their fourth in five years, confirming them as the dominant club of the decade. And as questionable as Guardiola's starting line-up was, the first goal was made by two of his substitutes - Raheem Sterling hooking a cross up to the far post, Gundogan arriving late to head past the previously impervious Robin Olsen. Rodri equalised with the type of goal that has suddenly become his custom, shots from range that either thunder or sneak in.

But Liverpool would win eventually, so another would be needed. Typically, it was the type of goal that City have perfected during Guardiola’s six years in charge, and it was created by the outstanding player in the country this season. Kevin De Bruyne charged down Tyrone Mings’ loose touch quicker than Douglas Luiz, tore into the box and sent a low cross to the far post waiting for Gundogan to tap in at point-blank range.

The ball crossed the line at 80:46. That is not quite 93:20. Perhaps nothing will ever match that moment after all, but this was still an extraordinary way for an extraordinary team to win a league title, and it came close.

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