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May 7, 2014

City break slipstream to surge past rivals

The Premier League lead had changed hands 25 times before Wednesday's probable final twist. By Sunday’s expected coronation, Manchester City will have spent just 15 days on top.

Arsenal (128), Chelsea (64), Liverpool (59) and even Manchester United, with two days in August, can now only watch as City flash home like an expertly delivered hold-up horse. However, Manuel Pellegrini’s team were hardly a tortoise to their rivals’ hare in this race. They have always looked best equipped, even when under-par results left them with much to do.

“There are different ways to win titles,” said Pellegrini after his team had rolled Aston Villa 4-0 following a lacklustre first-half showing. “I choose this one with attractive football, that the fans enjoy the season. Maybe you can win titles other ways. For me, the aesthetic part is very important.”

Pellegrini’s voicing of Wildean aesthetic principles was a definite dig at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The Chilean, unhappy about being levered out of Real Madrid back in 2010, has dealt stoically with the Portuguese’s jibes all season. "I did not expect anything different from him," said Pellegrini when Mourinho’s celebration of a last-minute October victory against City was conducted with the crowd behind City’s bench. But few expect a Mourinho team to thrill; his Chelsea return has reminded that all the witty soundbites cannot veil a functional style of football that often fails to entertain.

To use Arsene Wenger’s famous phrase, those at Anfield thought they had the “prettiest wife,” and there is little doubt that Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool produced the most thrilling football of all in their 5-1 February destruction of Arsenal, and in the first half of April’s 3-2 victory over City.

On beating City, as Steven Gerrard conducted the on-field pep talk that now features in a thousand GIFs, memes and Vines, the idea that “this does not slip” was compelling. Liverpool’s relentlessness was infectious, their home a cauldron of expectant noise, with the team bus welcomed into the stadium concourse amid an orgy of flags, flares and camera phones. It was difficult not to agree with fans’ belief that “we’re gonna win the league.”

Hubris, though, looks to have eventually done for them. On April 27, a tracksuited and unshaven Jose Mourinho appeared on the sidelines to commit a first-rate act of trolling. Never deserting his technical area, he willingly took home fans’ abuse and anger as Chelsea killed off Liverpool’s habitual opening blitz, and then torpedoed their title bid with two goals on the counter. Gerrard’s slip for Demba Ba’s opener is already enshrined in a mocking terrace song.

A Monday collapse, from three goals up, at Crystal Palace will almost certainly be viewed as the moment of painful truth. Those fans who wept rather too openly in the perhaps aptly named Arthur Wait Stand are destined to feature in Sky‘s “Premier League Years” until eternity concludes. A mindset of chasing goal difference rather than victory revealed a fatal naivety to Rodgers and his team. If City do not slip up against West Ham, Liverpool will become the first league leaders who entered May not to win the crown since Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat at Leeds cost them 1998-99’s renewal.

Liverpool are not the only ones to choke. No amount of Mourinho deflection can dismiss the idea that Chelsea’s failure was self-inflicted. Losing at Aston Villa, being beaten at home by Sunderland and then failing to score past Norwich were horrendous results for a team that had destiny in its own hands up until Fabio Borini converted a penalty against his former club on April 19.

Arsenal too, rue another season of missed opportunity, their challenge utterly wrecked by losing 6-3 at City in December, that Liverpool ruination, a 6-0 defeat at Chelsea painfully delivered on the occasion of Wenger’s 1000th game in charge and then collapsing 3-0 at Everton. Seven points clear at the top in November, Wenger’s team has not been so close to glory since 2007-08, yet his team’s challenge was finished as early as Martin Skrtel’s two quick goals at Anfield.

Which all suggests that City have played little part in their imminent success. Instead they have stuck to their task manfully, even after the flow of their football has been stemmed. The Villa victory did not see them panic in the eye of growing frustration. Edin Dzeko's two goals came via a door that had repeatedly been knocked on, only for the Bosnian to eventually batter it down. After 65 testy minutes, Pablo Zabaleta finally made his escape down the right flank, and Dzeko did the rest from close range.

“The most important thing is this team always believe we can win the title from the beginning,” suggested Pellegrini on Wednesday. “We accept the pressure to win it.”

Such pressures have often been self-inflicted, and also a hostage to fortune. They have suffered patchy away form, winning just four points from a possible 18 in their opening six trips, while injury troubles have meant Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero have played just 216 minutes together. Class, experience and superior resources should eventually tell.

As Toure bludgeoned through Villa’s defence to score a wonderful solo goal in added time -- City’s 100th of the Premier League campaign -- their late surge for the title looked irresistible. Fifteen days on top should be enough for them.