That’s the way to do it. No alarms and no surprises greeted Manchester City last night. It was tense, for a while, but the best team won — the match and, most probably, the league.
A point against West Ham United on Sunday will do it, given the plus-13 goal difference advantage over Liverpool. The fourth goal of the game was Manchester City’s 100th in the Barclays Premier League this season, an amazing achievement no matter the budget.
There are plenty of teams who have spent a few quid winning the title but, if the finale goes according to plan, few will have done it with as much style as City. They need four goals to overtake the 103 scored by Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea team in 2009-10.
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You wear it well: Stevan Jovetic celebrates netting City’s third goal on their way to a near-certain title win
Beat that and they would set a total unsurpassed by any team since Tottenham Hotspur’s Double winners in 1960-61. Consideration of how many subsequent campaigns were played over 42 games puts City’s prolific nature into perspective. With their tails up, they are irresistible and the final 30 minutes of this match was evidence enough of that.
Good Lord, it was a tense affair by the time the deadlock was broken. What is needed on an occasion such as this is an early goal to settle the nerves, and eight near misses inside 64 minutes isn’t quite the same.
Manchester City are new enough to this, with too much bad juju from recent years, to take victory for granted.
Aston Villa are a completely different proposition away this season, too, resolute in a way that deserts them on home turf. And for the first hour or so they dug in admirably.
By then the Etihad Stadium had fallen eerily quiet, save for the occasional imploration to manager, captain or God and all his angels above to get involved, make some changes, or simply sort it out.
Team P GD Pts
1 Manchester City 37 63 83
2 Liverpool 37 50 81
3 Chelsea 37 43 79
4 Arsenal 37 25 76
5 Everton 37 20 69
6 Tottenham Hotspur 37 1 66
7 Manchester United 37 21 63
8 Southampton 37 8 55
9 Newcastle United 37 -15 49
10 Stoke City 37 -8 47
11 Crystal Palace 37 -15 44
12 West Ham United 37 -9 40
13 Swansea City 37 -2 39
14 Sunderland 37 -17 38
15 Aston Villa 37 -19 38
16 Hull City 37 -13 37
17 West Bromwich Albion 37 -15 36
18 Norwich City 37 -32 33
19 Fulham 37 -45 31
20 Cardiff City 37 -41 30
In the end, Edin Dzeko sorted it for everybody, taking the crowd from nought to 140 in the space of a second. Decibels, that is. Rendered silent by the most beastly tension, the ground erupted at the sight of the goals that should precede City’s second title of the modern era. A mood of frustration turned to one of unbridled elation; an atmosphere with all the cheeriness and verve of a funeral parlour on a rainy Thursday was instantly recast as party central.
The scoreline makes this look comfortable but nobody wins the league at this late stage of the season smiling and waving to the crowd. A title race destined to go to the last day as this will is always going to be an anxious affair and after Liverpool’s quite astonishing capitulation at Crystal Palace on Monday, only a fool would take any of the teams for granted in this remarkable competition.
Villa were no exception. Playing for nothing bar pride, they nevertheless held strong, and when goalkeeper Brad Guzan made another fine save from an Aleksandar Kolarov free-kick after 57 minutes, many locals were wondering whether this was going to be what is euphemistically termed one of those nights.
Dzeko proved the difference, as he has been so often this season, enjoying a fantastic resurgence under Manuel Pellegrini. His predecessor, Roberto Mancini, was unconvinced by Dzeko but Pellegrini has worked hard to bring him into the fold and is deservedly reaping the rewards.
City had struggled to give him proper service in the first half — hang your head James Milner, who wasted several excellent positions
Making his point: Paul Lambert shouts instructions to his side from his technical area
David Silva played a neat little pass inside to Pablo Zabaleta on the right flank and his low cross found Dzeko perfectly positioned from six yards out to bring the goal, and the noise. The second was a replica in its construction, the same ball from Silva to Zabaleta on the right, but this time a pinpoint cutback pass to Samir Nasri, whose shot struck Guzan’s legs. Dzeko was on hand, as a good striker should be, to tap the rebound into the net.
Comfortable at last, City cut loose. Yaya Toure kept the ball in the penalty area, dribbling and working it around a cluster of Villa defenders, before sliding it to substitute Stevan Jovetic, a relative bit-part player this season due to injuries. His finish, though, afforded a glimpse of City’s growing strength next season, even with UEFA attempting its worst, Jovetic side-footing the ball with accuracy and power from a distance of 20 yards.
City had hit that dreaded 3-0 leading margin — but with only a minute of real time to play. Timing is everything in this game. There would be no Crystanbul-like revival here.
Near miss: A frustrated Samir Nasri misses from close range for Manchester City
The fourth, two minutes into injury time, was probably the best of the lot. Toure picked up a clearance and ran, driving, driving, on and on, farther than any imagined, no team-mate or opponent able to keep pace with him. He finished with the flourish of a champion and the stadium responded in kind. Those moments of dread were a distant memory.
It is almost unthinkable that a City team playing with this swagger could lose at home to a West Ham team that they have beaten 12-1 on aggregate over three matches this season.
The last time West Ham set foot inside the Etihad Stadium they lost 6-0 and Sam Allardyce might have to set up even more negatively than he did at Stamford Bridge.
Triumphant: A City fan shouts in delight with his team heading for the league title
Is there any such thing as 16th century football? West Ham famously drew 0-0 with Chelsea earlier in the season, provoking Jose Mourinho to criticise Allardyce’s primitive tactics, but even a repeat of that scoreline would satisfy City, who need only a point to secure another triumph on goal difference.
Ultimately, it is Liverpool’s defence that has scuppered their season. They have scored just one goal fewer than City, but conceded 12 more.
City are not exactly watertight — 37 in the goals against column is high — but they have just about kept the balance right.
Andreas Weimann hit the bar with a header here, with the score at 2-0, and there were a couple of first-half breakaways, but City’s back line now looks firm.
Martin Demichelis has been growing in confidence and is finally working well with Vincent Kompany. This is City’s title to lose now, and there is always a chance of one final twist, but the comedy club of old shut its doors long ago.
Those who left the Etihad singing had a hundred reasons to be confident.
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