Thirty-seven down, one to go. A draw might be enough in the final game at Brighton on Sunday. A defeat, even. Manchester City did what necessity demanded in beating Leicester to resume the summit of the Premier League by a point. It took the goal of the century to escape Leicester’s cultured clamp, the finest and perhaps the most important Vincent Kompany will ever score.
One beautiful death is enough for any man, surely. Yet after this, the end Jurgen Klopp envisaged against Barcelona in the Champions League beckons once more. If to finish second on what could be a mountainous 97 points casts a heroic glow across Anfield, what to say about City? Perhaps Liverpool’s breathless brilliance says it all. City have had to be better.
The dismissal of Leicester was their 13th league victory on the spin. The only reverse since losing to Newcastle at the end of January was the ambush at Spurs in the Champions League, where Sergio Aguero missed a penalty. The irony. The angle was not acute enough, obviously, for City’s most destructive blade.
Guardiola, pictured, had classified this his most challenging championship campaign. Somehow his wondrous design has failed four times, including a home defeat to Crystal Palace three days before Christmas, a gift all but Liverpool had been unable to accept. Of the double-digit wins this was the fifth by the only goal. Guardiola has learned to grind as well as glide in this epic game of thrones in which Liverpool have proved harder to shift than the undead north of the wall.
Cries of campioni rang out expectantly. Blue Moon cranked up on the PA. A wall of noise engulfed the stadium as the referee made to blow his whistle. There would be nothing ordinary about this night. City expanded into the Leicester half. Leicester contracted accordingly. This is how it would be, a match sprung with tension. Liverpool made it so.
Any sense this might be straightforward lasted only as long as it took Leicester to start knocking the ball about confidently via the feet of James Madison and Youri Tielemans. This was a free ride for Leicester, a contest of nil consequence, other than to show the new boss a trick or two. Brendan Rodgers liked what he saw, filling his book with gleeful notes.
Poor Pep was ageing before our eyes, his arms flapping in frustration at the stillness that had settled on his team. The urgency was with Leicester, the snap in the passes all theirs. Oh for the missing drive of Kevin DeBruyne, some red-topped oomph to knock the swagger from Leicester’s stride.
Guardiola had only himself to blame. Rodgers had packaged Leicester in City’s image, or as near as damn it. They would contest every ball like feral dogs, chase down every cause and when in possession treat the ball like their last Rolo. None but them was having so much as a sniff of it.
Aside from an Aguero header miraculously scooped out of the goal by Kasper Schmeichel, City struggled to get behind the Leicester defence. Attempts were largely speculative from the edge of the box and blocked without too much alarm. When the half closed goalless, City had few complaints. Inevitably Guardiola did not wait long to roll the dice. Off came Phil Foden ten minutes into the second half, replaced by Leroy Sane. This always looked a match too far for City’s slender teenager. With Sane pinned to the left, City carried greater width and threat.
The seconds ticked by. Half an hour remaining, then 20 minutes, then Vincent Kompany strode into the picture like the tallest man in Manchester, his right boot cocked ready to set the Etihad ablaze. This is what heroes do. They take hold of the moment, they bend the night to their will. City had tried everything else, threw all their wit and guile at Leicester and saw it rebound in their faces.
This is the reason Guardiola defaults to his captain. His intervention might not have won the day quite as Guardiola had planned. He just wanted him out there for that goal-line block or the headed winner from a set-piece. What he got was a rocket out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s locker, one of the best goals this ground has ever or will ever see.
The effort City expended to sneak home offers Liverpool at least a scintilla of hope. Leicester might have nicked a draw in the closing minutes, but didn’t. It’s City’s to lose now.