For the most part, this season’s battle for top-spot will go down as the best ever. Until Arsenal did an Arsenal, it had been a fight between four well-matched teams, with momentum swinging back and forth on a weekly basis.
But entertainment counts for little in the context of history. Whoever emerges as champions on Sunday will be remembered as one of the worst Premier League winners. Even worse than the Manchester United side that claimed the title last season.
Alex Ferguson’s United were the best of a weak field last season, but has the competition this season really been that much stronger? Are Arsenal better now than they were last year? Marginally. The same goes for Chelsea and City.
And Spurs are in pretty much the same place, but without their best player. The obvious exception is Liverpool, who have gone from the verge of Europa League qualification to the verge of title glory.
It’s all gone Ron
However, there’s no doubt that the quality at the top of the Premier League has been diluted in recent years. The Arsenal Invincibles would never have given up a three-goal lead away to Crystal Palace. Cristiano Ronaldo’s United wouldn’t have dropped points at home to a team fronted by Connor Wickham (like City did).
Yet that’s what has made this season so exciting. When Palace scored their third against Liverpool English football lost its shit. Jonathan Pearce claimed on BBC 5Live after the game that “the Premier League is the only league where a team with nothing to play for beats a title challenger”. That completely ignores Atletico Madrid’s defeat to Levante the day before. And the fact that Liverpool didn’t actually lose.
Jamie Carragher was so exasperated trying to analyse and dissect Liverpool’s collapse there were times he edged on going sonar. And Spurs lorded it over the Reds by posting a Vine mocking their collapse, for which they apologised and put down to a ‘hacking’.
Arsenal blew their chance months ago. The signing of Mesut Ozil propelled the Gunners to the top of the league, a position they held until as recently as February. But without the new and improved Aaron Ramsey Arsenal faded. Arsene Wenger slinked back into his caterpillar jacket, and zipped up the cocoon. Maybe one day he’ll emerge a butterfly.
Subsequently, it looked like Chelsea’s to lose, with victory at Manchester City underlining their title credentials. Jose Mourinho was special again, although the draw at West Brom just a week later was less impressive.
Liverpool born slippy
Then came Liverpool’s charge. The Liver Bird took flight after the turn of the year, soaring above the rest of the Premier League and defecating down the throats of anyone who dared doubt them.
Everything was going Liverpool’s way. Luis Suarez was named Player of the Year, completing a tale of heartwarming redemption. It was only right that he be rewarded for not racially abused a person in almost three years – not a single person – and not biting anyone in a while either.
Daniel Sturridge was dancing a lot and Brendan Rodgers was in inspiring mood, as if he’d taken his team talks from YouTube videos of Christopher Nolan quotes set to a Hans Zimmer soundtrack.
But then their grip on the Premier League trophy, as well as Steven Gerrard’s feet, slipped with defeat to Chelsea and Monday’s draw against Crystal Palace.
Can West Ham stop City?
Now City are the champions-elect, with only West Ham standing between them and a second league title in three years.
But at no point this season have City, nor Liverpool, shown the kind of mental strength or self-belief that separates champions from the rest. Perhaps the closest they came was actually on Wednesday night, cutting through near tangible tension to claim a 4-0 win over Villa. Even then, the result was never in any genuine doubt.
The best title-winning sides don’t just dismantle inferior opposition, in the way City and Liverpool have several times this season. They show their resolve when the going gets tough. Can either City or Liverpool claim to have done so?
Not your archetypal champions
Whenever City or Liverpool have been forced to dig deep, they’ve put down their shovels. Like the former did at Sunderland and Villa, and like the latter did against Southampton earlier in the season. Both sides have to play well to win, contradicting that old cliché about title-winning sides grinding out barely deserved victories.
- Only one side in Premier League history (Blackburn Rovers 1994/95) has won the title having lost more than six games, as both City and Liverpool have. And when Rovers won the league they amassed 89 points. City can only reach 86.
- Similarly, only one team (Manchester United 1995/96) has ever won the Premier League after losing more than five games on the road, as City have this season.
It is often said the league is won in February, yet City started the month with a defeat to Chelsea and a draw with Norwich. Pellegrini’s men aren’t your archetypal league champions.
Is there another twist?
And therein lies hope for Liverpool, who should look back to 2010/2011 for encouragement. Of course, not many Reds like doing that. It was a time defined at Anfield by the Roy Hodgson face rub (above). But the way City clinched the title with a 94th-minute winner following a United collapse gives the Reds some precedential optimism. Rodgers needs an even bigger plot-twist.
After losing to Chelsea, Liverpool were always going to need City to falter. Now they just need them to falter a bit worse. It seems a long shot, but Pellegrini’s side have already been shocked by Cardiff, Sunderland and Championship side Wigan Athletic this season.
No matter how it finishes, we’ll have learned something. A classic title race doesn’t always produce a classic champion.