London (AFP) – Manchester City are Premier League champions for the fifth time in 10 seasons — underlining their status as the dominant side in English football.
A third league title of Pep Guardiola’s reign was anything but a foregone conclusion in the early months of a season like no other, played out almost entirely in empty stadiums because of the coronavirus pandemic.
City stumbled in the early weeks of the campaign but found their groove in mid-December to streak clear of the chasing pack and wrap up the title with three games to spare.
AFP Sport looks at five defining moments that swung the title race City’s way:
Ruben to the rescue
After a 5-2 thrashing by Leicester in their first home league game of the season, it was hard to imagine City would go on to boast by far the best defensive record in the Premier League.
However, within 48 hours of the Foxes running amok at the Etihad, Ruben Dias arrived for £62 million ($86 million) to end Guardiola’s defensive woes.
The Portugal centre-back not only brought his own mix of physical power and poise on the ball, but brought out the best in a revitalised John Stones as they formed a solid partnership.
In the 10 Premier League games they started together between December and February, City conceded just two inconsequential goals in taking a maximum 30 points to seize control of the title race.
West Brom crisis meeting
“I didn’t like what I saw,” said Guardiola after City dropped points for the seventh time in their opening 12 Premier League games in a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom. “I felt this is not the team I can recognise myself.”
The Catalan went back to the drawing board with his staff, while captain Fernandinho called a crisis meeting among the squad.
“We had to come back to our game, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay in position, run less with the ball, do it together. We don’t have a specific player to win games, we have to do it together,” Guardiola later added.
A 21-game winning run followed to not only build a huge lead in the title race, but keep City on track for a treble.
Chelsea defeated despite Covid outbreak
City’s final game of 2020 at Everton was postponed just hours before kick-off due to a coronavirus outbreak among the squad that shut down the club’s training ground.
Less than a week later, Guardiola’s men travelled to Chelsea with just 15 senior players available due to positive cases.
Despite the adversity, City produced to that point their best performance of the season, sweeping the Blues aside with three goals in the first 34 minutes.
Fortress Anfield falls
Victory at Anfield was one of the few Premier League feats that had not been achieved by City since their Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008.
Liverpool’s title defence was already crumbling — after a 68-game unbeaten at home in the league stretching back nearly four years, Brighton and Burnley both won at Anfield prior to City’s visit.
City did not just end an 18-year wait for a league victory at Liverpool but did so emphatically with a 4-1 win thanks to a combination of sumptuous attacking play and two huge errors from Reds’ goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
Man Utd feel the pressure
Liverpool’s capitulation left Manchester United as the only other contenders to stop City, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men felt the pressure as soon as they became title contenders.
A 2-1 win at Fulham on January 20 took the Red Devils top of the table, although City had a game in hand to overturn a two-point deficit.
In United’s next league match, rock-bottom Sheffield United won at Old Trafford, kicking off a run of two wins in eight games that ended any realistic hope Solskjaer’s side had of ending an eight-year wait to win the title.
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