Friday 13 December 2019

Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini holds all the aces in game of twist

It's now starting to look like the house always wins

Samir Nasri of Manchester City hurdles the tackle of James McCarthy during yesterday’s Premier League match at Goodison Park
Samir Nasri of Manchester City hurdles the tackle of James McCarthy during yesterday’s Premier League match at Goodison Park
Manuel Pellegrini, manager of Manchester City

Dion Fanning

At the end of an extraordinary Premier League season, modern realities asserted themselves last night.

Manchester City began the season as title favourites and, as the season enters its final week, they are top this morning for the first time since January 29 when their 5-1 win at White Hart Lane moved them above Arsenal.

City have two home games left against two sides with nothing to play for and while they may have to play them without Sergio Aguero, they would expect to win, even in this season of the unexpected.

Everton's defeat last night ensured that Arsenal would finish fourth, even if that had appeared inevitable as Roberto Martinez's side faltered in recent weeks. With Norwich likely to be effectively relegated this afternoon, the title race is the only mystery remaining in the most puzzling of seasons.

When Ross Barkley gave Everton the lead, it looked like they would put pressure on Arsenal and do Liverpool a favour, but City, driven by Yaya Toure until he was taken off as a precautionary measure, turned the game around. They had to play the final 30 minutes in the knowledge that an Everton equaliser would hand Liverpool the initiative but although City retreated, they were never threatened and now the pressure is on their opponents.

City's time at the top could be brief if Chelsea beat Norwich today, but they shouldn't be waiting as long to return. In late January, City stayed in first for only three days until Arsenal returned to the top when they too thought they could make a title challenge.

City have, through a combination of their failings and their games in hand, been chasing ever since. Now the top three all have two games remaining and City's failings are less pronounced than their rivals.

Nobody would be surprised by their position at this stage if the season hadn't promised something different. Liverpool's rise and the collapse of the Premier League champions Manchester United suggested anything was possible.

City have the squad to cover the possible absence of Aguero but the reality is that they miss him more than they should.

With their squad, City should have found this Premier League – with United's implosion and the failings of others, particularly Chelsea – less of a challenge but if they can win their second title in three seasons, they will be able to insist that their plans for domination in the English game are on schedule.

Even during their years of wealth, City had struggled at Goodison and their victory last night was their first at Goodison Park since Stephen Ireland and Robinho had given them three points in 2009.

Goodison Park may not have provide the intimidating atmosphere it sometimes can but then it is always unclear who is being intimidated by atmosphere. The teams at the bottom of the Premier League had confirmed why they were there in the afternoon kick-offs, which meant that Everton would the only one of City's last three opponents with something to play for.

Everton didn't perform spectacularly on the field after Barkley had put them ahead but defeats at Southampton and at home to Crystal Palace had not only effectively ruled them out of the Champions League places, it had suggested there were vulnerabilities that City could expose.

Manuel Pellegrini's side haven't always done that but they have recovered from the defeat at Anfield and the dropped points at home to Sunderland. Liverpool could be third after Chelsea's game this afternoon and, in perhaps the last nod to this season's unpredictability, they will be top if they win at Crystal Palace tomorrow night.

Until they crashed up against Chelsea last weekend Brendan Rodgers' side had provided many of the season's staggering moments but against Mourinho's team they couldn't implement their Plan A, let alone discover if they had a Plan B.

At Selhurst Park tomorrow, it will become clear how much that defeat has affected them. Liverpool need goals, knowing that if they win all their games they would have to overcome City's superior goal difference.

To win the league would have been an unprecedented leap in Premier League history and it may be that Liverpool may have to settle for the mundane achievement that is exceptional progress.

Chelsea, too, must not be forgotten, even as Mourinho writes them off. They will be top tonight if they beat Norwich and while they need two teams to falter, nobody would be surprised to see Mourinho with a Premier League title next Sunday.

Pellegrini considered last night's victory a "huge step" but warned against thinking that Manchester City won the Premier League last night.

Some may have detected signs of nerves but in the final week of the season, it would have been strange if they weren't there. "The most important thing was to win," Pellegrini said.

Many people are expecting one last twist but maybe the house always wins. Manchester City must win at home against Aston Villa on Wednesday and West Ham next Sunday to regain the title. The final surprise may be that there are no more surprises.

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