After a 2013-14 Premier League title race of twists and turns, John Brewin selects the five most decisive games of the season as Manchester City ultimately claimed glory ahead of Liverpool on the final day.
This was the Sunday afternoon when it became clear that the champions would not be putting up a credible defence of their title. Three minutes either side of half-time crashingly delivered that message. David Moyes' Manchester United were destroyed by a City team that looked streets ahead.
In the 17th minute, Sergio Aguero converted after attempts had rained down on David De Gea's goal. United's best hope was holding on for half-time and that Moyes might perform a tactical or motivational miracle. Yaya Toure's 45th-minute strike negated that, and whatever Moyes might have said had no effect as two quick goals by Aguero and Samir Nasri followed.
Thereafter, a procession of humiliation. United did play better, but to a chorus of Blue mockery. Moyes, shell-shocked on the sidelines, was cruelly singled out. Marouane Fellaini, his sole summer signing, was supposed to add steel to United's midfield. Prematch comparisons had been made with Toure. In fact, there is no comparison and here was unimpeachable evidence; City's powerhouse repeatedly crashed through United's soft centre.
"We might have to take a few more punches," said Moyes afterwards, a prediction that undercooked the pain that lay ahead for him and United.
In years to come, a cursory glance at the 2013-14 table will not suggest that Arsenal led the table for 128 days. The calendar year of 2013 saw them outperform the rest by far. Their subsequent fade draws a thick veil over a campaign that faltered once spring neared. Arsene Wenger seemed to have hit on a formula: strong defence, marshalled by Per Mertesacker, a front line led by Olivier Giroud, and a midfield unit given creative injection by the expensive arrival of Mesut Ozil.
This was Arsenal's performance of the season, and took them five points clear of Liverpool, themselves a genuine contender. Not for the last time, Brendan Rodgers left his team too open and paid a price. A five-man defence with wing-backs was swarmed over by an Arsenal midfield whose five outclassed Liverpool's disconnected trio. Mikel Arteta was especially outstanding, while Steven Gerrard struggled badly. It may well have been this match that led to his retreat to the quarterback role he would fulfill with distinction, before ultimate disaster.
Arsenal should have led by more than Santi Cazorla's goal by half-time, and Rodgers' switch at the break had looked to stem the flow, before Aaron Ramsey's long-ranger won the day. The Welshman, the star player of the season's opening fourth months, scored in the spectacular style a younger Gerrard once made his own.Manchester City 2-1 Liverpool, Dec. 26
"Our main intention is to set up camp in the top four," Brendan Rodgers said following a defeat that left Liverpool with a sense of injustice, even though they had performed at a level to suggest that ambitions might be pointed higher.
Raheem Sterling spent November linked with a loan to Swansea. By Boxing Day, the teenager was starring in a top-of-the-table clash. He scored a goal wrongly ruled out for offside by referee Lee Probert, but soon repeated the trick by bursting through to set up Philippe Coutinho's opener.
City powered back when Vincent Kompany thrashed a header home, and Alvaro Negrdo, the forgotten star of the eventual champions, scored the winner, assisted by Simon Mignolet's feckless attempt to stop the Spaniard's chip. The scoring was done by half-time, and City's defence held off Liverpool's waves of attack, but with little to spare. The victors were run close.
Rodgers' disappointment got him into trouble when questioning Probert's Greater Manchester origins. That pain was doubled days later when Chelsea inflicted a similar defeat -- ref rage, Mignolet woe and excellent Liverpool play denied. However, despite dropping to fourth, Rodgers' team had revealed they might yet be live contenders.
This was the Saturday lunchtime when Arsenal's title challenge was ram-raided into pitiful submission. The opening 20 minutes were where Liverpool fans began to believe that, after 24 years, a league title might finally return. By then, Liverpool were four goals clear and a group of Arsenal fans had already left Anfield to make a quick and miserable return to London.
Liverpool had previewed this performance by blowing away Everton the previous week, yet Arsenal still allowed themselves to be caught utterly cold. Arsene Wenger glowered and muttered to himself after Martin Skrtel twice powered in headers before Raheem Sterling made it three from close range. Daniel Sturridge's cool finish was the mark of a team utterly sure this was their day. After the fourth, Rodgers was relaxed enough to respond to home fans' songs of praise for him.
Mesut Ozil's lax play was responsible for two Liverpool goals, while Wenger himself faced down similar accusations of impotence. "We have a lot to answer for, and a lot of answers to find," he admitted. Liverpool had delivered the performance of the season. It remains difficult to recall as destructive an attacking display as that thrilling 20 minutes.Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea, April 27
As Liverpool's team coach approached the Shankly Gates, a large crowd had gathered. This was the third home game in a row such a welcoming party had formed, but this time belief burned brightest. Under a hail of flares, flags and camera phone flashes, "We're Gonna Win The League," was an anthem of expectation rather than hope. A 3-2 victory over Manchester City two weeks previously, and winning by the same scoreline at Norwich, meant Liverpool now needed seven points for the title.
Four hours later, hopes were dashed. Steven Gerrard's failure to live up to his own command that "this does not f---ing slip" was crucial, though credit for Demba Ba's expert finish must be offered. Thereafter, Liverpool lost their heads, with Gerrard relinquishing the anchor role to chaotically chase an equaliser. When Fernando Torres and Willian waltzed through in added time, Anfield's atmosphere turned funereal.
A draw would have been enough, but Jose Mourinho, tracksuited and teasing on the sidelines, had taunted Rodgers and Liverpool into their mistakes. Rodgers' game management failed him in its key test. He was duped by a sharper operator playing on the edges of the rules and spirit of the game; Chelsea wasted time from the first minute, drew Liverpool's sting and pounced. Chelsea, who beat both City and Liverpool home and away, delivered the title's key result, yet their own failings had already denied them the opportunity to be crowned. It had been that type of season.
Liverpool had still to suffer that 3-3 pain at Crystal Palace, but this was the defeat that meant Manchester City could beat their own path to glory. City made no mistake.