Pep Guardiola's next Man City challenge: defend title, create history again
As Manchester City fans prepare to draw the curtain on what's been a record-breaking and extraordinary season, thoughts are beginning to turn toward a title defence. It is something the club has never done successfully before, having won the top flight five times and never having been crowned champions twice in a row.
Instead, City tend to specialise in not really getting close the next season. In each of Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini's defences, 2013 and 2015, respectively, they finished second. But both times, they were quite some way off the eventual champions' points total and it was a one-horse race from Christmas onwards. Supporters had thrown in the towel long before May.
City even managed to get relegated in one of their five title defences, but that was way back in 1938. They are the only reigning champions to go down the following season and it's a bizarre badge of honour for the fans to be strangely proud of. It sums up their "Typical City" attitude better than a lot of the other, equally stupid, things the club has done.
However, to even have the opportunity to defend the title is something a lot of City fans never thought they would see. When they were flirting with administration in the third tier in 1998, supporters were happy just to get back to winning ways. When they were yo-yoing between divisions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many would have been pleased just to have some stability. When Stuart Pearce was boring the pants off the crowd at Eastlands by scoring only 10 goals at home all season, some assumed that was as good as it was ever going to get.
They would stay up, have a decent cup run, be subjected to defeat by a lower-league team in the other cup, and then do it all again 12 months later. Pipe dreams of winning trophies and challenging for titles were quickly dismissed by a cold, harsh reality that, without major investment and without a revolution on an epic scale, nothing was ever going to change.
Even when the first investment came, courtesy of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, it would turn out to be a false dawn. The first half of the season under Sven-Goran Eriksson was a joy to watch, as City held their own against the Premier League's best and were still hanging around the Champions League places at Christmas. But a springtime slump saw them slip down to a mid-table finish.
Friday marks 10 years to the day that City were humiliated on the final day of that season. Some put the 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough down to a player protest -- news of Eriksson's sacking had leaked in the weeks before and City's performances over the last couple of matches were getting markedly worse -- while others put it down to the end-of-season malaise that had set in when there was nothing to play for.
It was a crushing end to what had been another false dawn. The following season, in which City would be taken over by Sheikh Mansour, looked like it would have continued the trend. New manager Mark Hughes was firefighting, as the club seemed to be facing administration again at the end of Shinawatra's ownership.
But this title-winning 2017-18 season is for those who stuck by the club. They never expected to be witnessing the greatest ever performance in a Premier League campaign when they went to the Etihad each week, but that's what has been delivered in Pep Guardiola's second term. It has been fantasy football -- and a fantasy that fans don't want to wake up from just yet. It is their reward for the disasters of the recent past.
All of those false dawns came while their most hated rivals in Manchester United were on their way to becoming the most successful team in English league history. You can't imagine what that does to a schoolboy of a blue persuasion growing up in inner city Manchester in the 1990s, having to listen to the endless taunts and jeers of classmates because of defeats to York, Stockport or Macclesfield.
With one more opportunity for supporters to enjoy this most impressive campaign, you can bet there will be a party atmosphere in the away end at Southampton's St. Mary's Stadium on Sunday. Guardiola will already go down in the history books in England for what he has achieved this year, but if he can become the first manager to take his team to 100 points, then he will have a page all to himself.
His next challenge is to do it again when the domestic football returns in August. City's supporters have loved every minute of the ride this season -- it could only get better if the level of performance does not drop next time out.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney