Manchester City still have plenty to play for in finale versus Watford
With memories of an emotional farewell to Pablo Zabaleta still fresh in the mind, Manchester City's encouraging 3-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday at the Etihad has put the club on the threshold of automatic Champions League football next season.
With all eyes on the departing Argentina international, it was difficult to focus on the task in hand, to make sure the final day's game at Watford carried as little threat as possible to City's hopes.
As it stands, a draw will ensure a top-four finish, but in order to secure third spot and avoid an early start in the Champions League pre-qualifiers a win at Vicarage Road is still imperative.
With Liverpool unlikely to slip up at home to relegated Middlesbrough, City can expect their rivals to finish on 76 points, the same total City would reach with a draw at Watford. As the clubs' goal difference sits only three apart, it would be far too risky playing for a draw and hoping Liverpool do not start an avalanche. As they waltzed past West Ham 4-0 in their last game, there is every chance that they might rack up a sizeable score against a despondent North East side.
City, therefore, cannot relax until the job is done.
Memories of two games against Steaua Bucharest in mid-August will keep minds sharp. Ironically, the away leg in Romania will probably go down as one of City's best performances of the entire season. It was a match where an utterly unprepared Steaua were handed a lesson in stupendously efficient football. As City cut through their opponents that night, it made it hard to look beyond them for the season's honours.
However, nine months later, they stand empty-handed, with a last fixture of the season to be fulfilled successfully just to finish third.
Much will be written about the reasons for City's underperformance this season, but one thing is clear: neither Pep Guardiola nor the club's owners in Abu Dhabi will tolerate more of the same next season. A clue to what we might expect has come late in the season with the return of captain Vincent Kompany. The Belgian has been dogged by injuries in recent times, but his absence from Guardiola's side has been felt deeply all season.
With the defence sparsely protected in Guardiola's chosen system, the spotlight fell squarely on the inability of the other centre-backs on offer to form a tight unit in front of an increasingly jittery Claudio Bravo. Neither the gung-ho Nicolas Otamendi nor the laid-back John Stones proved able to hit the right notes playing alongside each other, while Aleksandar Kolarov was jettisoned after a promising early-season switch into the middle of the defence.
The transition in Otamendi's form when partnered with Kompany is a real eye-opener. Suddenly a player prone to flinging himself into horizontal challenges that were doomed to fail looks the part alongside the reliable rhythms of his captain.
Kompany came to Manchester as a holding midfielder at the same time as Zabaleta, in the summer of 2008. Watching footage of the Belgian in those early days reveals a skinny young man playing an unobtrusive role at his new club, with the legendary right-back-to-be next to him in a workmanlike midfield supposed to free up the wayward genius of Robinho.
Contrast that with the muscular man-mountain out on the Etihad pitch against West Brom. Commanding and sure-footed, Kompany's presence instils confidence in others. It is no coincidence that City have again embarked on one of their traditional strong finishes now that he has regained his place.
City have registered three-straight wins and, before that, were unbeaten in the Premier League since a slightly unlucky defeat at Stamford Bridge on April 5 -- a total of seven games. Only the defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley stands out in the run-in, ironically the one game that was pivotal in ensuring no trophies would be landing in the City cabinet this season.
Had Kompany remained fit and the exotic talent of the squad's other notable absentee, Gabriel Jesus, been available, it is intriguing to ask whether City might not have run Chelsea and Tottenham a lot closer at the top of the table.
That the league campaign ended in disappointment is a matter for the history books. However, it is now three years since City's last title win in 2014, a victory ahead of Liverpool under Manuel Pellegrini that appeared to give the green light to the continuation of a strikingly successful era for the club. That it petered out and has now produced only a single League Cup triumph in three years of trying makes it adamant that minds are cleared.
There will be more sad farewells of the like seen this week as a new-look City prepare for a no-holds barred attack on the game's top honours in 2017-18. Guardiola's paymasters will expect nothing less.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.