Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola described his players as “legends” after they completed one of the most memorable comebacks in English Premier League history on Sunday.
At 2-0 down to Aston Villa with less than 15 minutes left, even the most ardent City fan must have been dreading the worst, knowing they needed a win to guarantee winning the league.
The game and the title looked to be slipping away until this side, yet again, proved just how special it is by scoring three times in five minutes to provide a dramatic conclusion to the Premier League season that many will remember for some time.
It was a win fitting for the occasion. A fourth league title in five years is simply remarkable and testament to what Guardiola has done since arriving at the Etihad Stadium six years ago.
“Four Premier Leagues. These guys are legends already; people have to admit it,” said Guardiola after an extraordinary Sunday.
“This group of players are absolutely eternal in this club because what we achieved is so difficult.”
The mentality of this team and its manager had been questioned after City fell victim to Real Madrid’s stunning comeback in their Champions League semifinal this season.
City was just minutes away from booking its place in the final of European football’s most prestigious competition but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after buckling under Madrid’s pressure – eventually losing the second leg 3-1.
It was a result that might have crushed City’s players in its immediate aftermath, but this title win will go some way towards healing those wounds.
“I called Real Madrid and they gave me good advice!” Guardiola joked with reporters when asked how his side completed the comeback against Aston Villa.
“No explanation in Madrid, no explanation today. It’s momentum. Sometimes, it’s nice to live in these kinds of situations. I had the feeling this will help us to be stronger next season.”
Even before winning the title, the team that Guardiola had assembled was already considered one of the best the country has ever seen and it boasts quality in every department.
Of course, money has been spent on getting the best players to the Etihad but splashing the cash doesn’t always guarantee success – just ask the Red side of Manchester for proof.
This achievement is about much more than buying success. What Guardiola has done is create a philosophy, a template for the club which has ushered in a trophy-laden era that even its wealthy owners must be surprised by.
And it’s a philosophy that has seeped through the cracks of the club and has influenced the entire English football pyramid – and arguably the world, for that matter.
Guardiola’s style of play, once deemed inappropriate for the physical rigors of the Premier League, is now played everywhere and held up as the example that every football purist wants to see their club play.
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But this alone can’t win you as many titles as City has won in recent years.
Alongside the beautiful way in which Guardiola demands his team to play, there is almost a dead-eyed attitude to league games – beating whatever is in front of it with metronome like precision.
City’s ability to keep possession and control games has an almost hypnotic effect at times.
After it’s done passing its opposition’s formation inside out, this City team bites with a fluid attacking flair and a dose of lethal finishing.
It was simply relentless again on Sunday and, despite not playing well for much of the match, the style proved effective as Aston Villa’s defense buckled under increasing City pressure in the second half.
It’s true that City has done all this without a recognized starting striker this seasono – something which will now change with the addition of Erling Haaland for the upcooming campaign – but you don’t need a leading man when your midfielders are able to find pockets of space that even the best defenders in world football can’t see forming.
The perfect example of this is Ilkay Gundogan, who was sent on by Guardiola with City chasing the game, and who scored two goals which came from late runs to the back post.
But you can’t talk about City’s title win this year and not credit its best player: Kevin De Bruyne.
The Belgian was in scintillating form during the title charge and has been named the Premier League Player of the Season for a second time in his career.
His driving runs and pinpoint passing have been a huge factor in this side’s success and there are few superlatives left to describe his talent.
Fans will be excited to see how he links up with the incoming Haaland because there is no sign of this Manchester City machine slowing down.
With such a prolific striker on board, City will be running out of excuses to not add a European trophy to its domestic dominance next campaign.
Spare a thought for Liverpool, though, which pushed this City team to the final minutes of the season and has now been pipped to the Premier League by a single point for the second time in three years.
And Gundogan paid tribute to the rivalry which has defined this era of the Premier League.
“If Liverpool would not be there and play the way they do, I don’t think the league could be that attractive. They played an incredible season and we pushed each other to the limit,” he said.
“Even though it’s a sad day for them, we need to appreciate what they’ve done. We’re looking forward to competing with them against next season.”