Man City can maintain formidable consistency with third in their sights
With the end of Manchester United's unbeaten run in London at the weekend and Liverpool's abject failure to dispose of Southampton in a scoreless draw at Anfield, Manchester City suddenly have a clear and uninterrupted view of the third place that will guarantee automatic Champions League football for an unprecedented sixth consecutive season.
After nine months of huffing and puffing, this small mercy might at least comfort the powers that be at the Etihad.
City now face a relatively simple run-in of two consecutive home games, against Leicester and West Brom, followed by the season's finale at Watford. Examining the club's records against these three opponents reveals plenty of reasons for the sky-blue faithful to be confident that third place can be secured.
Leicester breeze into the Etihad next. Prior to the past two fixtures, a calamitous 4-2 defeat at the King Power Stadium in December and an equally damaging 3-1 home loss in February to a finely balanced and vigorously counter-attacking side, Leicester had inflicted precious little damage on City.
You have to go back to Nov. 2003 to find the last time Leicester came out on top against City. There is a glimmer of hope for the chasing pack, however. Of the sporadic wins Leicester have managed to inflict upon the team, most have come in Manchester. Added to last season's smash-and-grab are the 3-0 win in Nov. 2003, when Kevin Keegan's side succumbed tamely in a horrible showing, ex-City hero Paul Dickov grabbing a goal in an easy victory.
Three years earlier, in Nov. 2000, another sleepy City performance allowed Leicester to scrape home with a 1-0 win -- Robbie Savage claiming the winner, with Dickov this time decked out in the sky blue of City. The only other Leicester victory over City in the Premier League era came in 1994-95, also in Manchester, on a waterlogged pitch with the goal again scored by a player who would later turn out for the Manchester club: ex-Manchester United striker Mark Robins.
Despite improved form under Craig Shakespeare, it is, therefore, reasonable to expect three points from this fixture, as is the case for the final home game of the season against West Brom. Here is another side coasting gently towards the end of the season, although in Tony Pulis's case, they may be coasting towards an all-time high in the Premier League era of eighth place.
City's record against West Brom is even more respectable. Since 1980, the Midlands side have triumphed only seven times, a single paltry victory in Manchester coming in the same year (2003) that Leicester recorded their win against Keegan's club. The game marked Robbie Fowler's debut for City and West Brom were bottom of the table at the time, so -- although away wins in Manchester are rare -- the Baggies are capable of springing the odd surprise.
The Manchester club find themselves on an 11-game streak of consecutive wins against these opponents, however, and a victory looks even more assured than against Leicester. Out of the past seven fixtures between the two sides, home and away, City have only failed to score at least three goals once, when they managed just two in last April's 2-1 victory.
Visits to Watford have been few and far between, owing to the two clubs often finding themselves in different divisions over the past 40 years. City travel to Vicarage Road on the last day of the season to play yet another side safe in mid-table. There have only been 23 competitive fixtures between the two teams since the first game in Sept. 1982, when City triumphed despite having left-back Bobby McDonald in goal for 85 of the 90 minutes.
Since then, only six victories have fallen Watford's way and the last one was in the dim mists of 1989. City are unbeaten since then, with eight wins and three draws. Like West Brom, Watford are facing a daunting run of consecutive defeats against City, with the prospect of a sixth on the bounce if the Manchester club triumph on the final day.
All of this means that the results involving Manchester United and Liverpool last weekend have left City with the simple task of winning their remaining three games to secure third place in the table. Pep Guardiola's team can therefore add to the club's Premier League consistency over recent years, finishing among the top four in the past six campaigns and appearing odds-on to add another third place to their impressive list.
Despite the sound of gnashing teeth in the background, Guardiola's first barren season will at least be notable for maintaining City's formidable consistency since the Sheikh Mansour takeover. Few will be pleased with the lack of trophies, but hope springs eternal that this can be a springboard to a summer of judicious recruitment and a 2017-18 season of invigorating success.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.