My Kingdom For A Premier League Title Race

I have to admit, a week ago I let myself get my hopes up. The results of the weekend before last—expected Manchester City and Arsenal wins over Crystal Palace and Brighton, respectively, plus an entertainingly flukey Liverpool draw away at Manchester United—set the stage for a downright epic run-in to the Premier League title race. With seven matches remaining, only a single point separated the three trophy hopefuls. My head swam with images of what following two months could have in store: each of the 21 matches freighted with the weight of a final, the tension at its tightest, the stakes at their highest, every goal scored a potential title-winner, every goal conceded the possible start of the ending, all of it coming down to the very last moments of the last game of the season, the race receiving a photo finish we’ll never forget. One week on, my optimism has already turned into resignation to our likely fate of watching Manchester fucking City win yet another title.

What’s changed just one week later? In a certain sense, not all that much. Man City, which entered the weekend in third place, one point behind Liverpool and Arsenal (with the Gunners on top due to a better goal difference), had the honors of going first on Saturday. The Citizens played host to Luton Town, and while the Hatters may be the friskiest of the three relegation favorites, they were no match for the reigning back-to-back-to-back Premier League winners. City got the first goal of the match in just the second minute, and the game was never in doubt from then on, ending in a resounding 5-1 win that provisionally took them to the top of the table.

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Next came Liverpool. The Reds too played host to a team ensconced in the table’s lower quarters, Crystal Palace, and there were more than enough reasons to motivate them to blow the doors off the visitors. There was of course the title pace the Pool Boys would’ve wanted to keep up with, as part of the club’s feel-good efforts to send off beloved manager Jürgen Klopp with another league title before he rides off into the sunset in the summer. There was also that painful draw to Man United the week prior, in which Liverpool gagged up its narrow lead atop the table by failing to beat its biggest rival, one more accustomed to being the butt of the joke than to landing the punchline. Not only that, but Liverpool had missed an opportunity to regain its focus after the United stumble during a shocking 3-0 defeat to Atalanta in the Europa League quarterfinals midweek. The Palace match was a chance for the Reds to take last week’s missteps, which otherwise might have gone down as a pair of Gerrard Slips that cost the club two trophies, and recast them as the slight, final wobbles along an otherwise triumphant charge to silverware. But the chance went begging.

There was only one moment during the Liverpool-Palace game that matched the sort of concerted beauty and efficiency Anfield is used to seeing. It came about 14 minutes into the game, when a masterful sequence of first-touch passing and collaborative movement saw one team slice through the other before flipping the ball into the net. The play was one of the prettiest of the season, and it left Klopp amazed and smiling, exclaiming “Wow!” at the end. Unfortunately for him and his team, the play was Crystal Palace’s doing.

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Eberechi Eze’s first-half strike was the only one of the day, sealing the Eagles’ 1-0 upset.

Finally, Arsenal had its chance to capture the top spot with the last match of the weekend. The Gunners’ task was more difficult than the other title racers, however, as the Londoners faced fourth-placed Aston Villa. During a typically formidable first-half showing, it looked like Arsenal might answer the bell and beat the Villans. But none of those big chances in the first 45 minutes managed to get past former Arsenal lad Emi Martínez in goal, and former Arsenal manager Unai Emery’s frustrating tactics stymied the home team after the break. Villa steadily grew into the match during the second half, culminating in a pair of late goals from Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins that delivered them the three points.

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The gap separating City, Arsenal, and Liverpool is still meager. City is on top with 73 points, and both Arsenal and Liverpool sit just two back on 71. There are a whopping six matches left in the season, plus whatever remains of the trio’s European campaigns, plus City’s spot in the FA Cup semis. That leaves us with far too much soccer, far too many opportunities for stumbles but also streaks of good form, to write off a title race that still hangs so delicately in the balance. And yet I can’t help feeling like this weekend was an omen.

Pep Guardiola’s Man City is, quite literally, built for this. Pep’s game is one of perfection, to an extent never before seen in the game’s modern history. Slip-ups are rare for the Citizens, and when they get their momentum going—which, by design, almost always comes right at the decisive stretch of the season—it’s nearly impossible to knock them off their pace or even just match it stride for stride. Seeing City bearing down on you from behind is nerve-wracking, as last year’s late-season Arsenal meltdown can attest. Give City an inch of a lead and in no time they can turn it into a mile.

That is why this weekend’s results at the top of the table, and the lead Man City now has in its grasp, feels much bigger than two points right now. Is there any real reason to expect City, winners of each of the last three Premier Leagues and five of the last six, to falter here? Does either Arsenal or Liverpool really have what it takes to chase down City, especially after the emotional deflation of this past weekend? Will we even get an honest-to-god title race out of the run-in, or will City simply power on ahead to its unprecedented fourth consecutive EPL championship, not even turning to glance at whatever it is Arsenal and Liverpool do?

I’d love to be able to hope for the three-team photo finish that seemed to be shaping up last week, and while my preference would be for a novel league winner this time around, I’d be fine with another City title if they at least had to push until the very end to earn it. Unfortunately, Liverpool and Arsenal both tripping right at the start of the final stretch has me thinking that we’re just going to see the same ending that we’ve seen several times before.

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