It might have been any number of Manchester City’s choice at the close. Perhaps they had agreed to keep it social. Indeed City did us all the favour of falling behind just to add to the sense of theatre. Brighton’s rise on the Liverpool stock exchange lasted all of 60 seconds. City were ahead at half-time and out of sight past the hour.
The only blot on the City canvas was the exaggerated yellow socks, a dayglo monument to poor taste. For Brighton the afternoon had a convivial, end-of-term feel about it, a fine community club seeing out another Premier League season in front of their own fans. Freed from the onerous business of having to secure points to stay up, Brighton duly immersed themselves in the occasion with Alireza Jahanbakhsh flashing an early tester wide of the City post. How the locals loved that, out of their seats in panto fashion to urge their team forward.
Once we got that out of the way the match fell into that familiar pattern of blanket City attack versus rigorous Brighton defence. Ordinarily this might bore the pants of observers, but the place was fizzing with tension while the outcome remained in the balance and rose an amp or two when the news filtered through that Liverpool had scored. “One-nil to the Liverpool,” sang the Brighton choir behind the goal placed under siege by City.
Though easily retained, the ball did not move through City feet at sufficient pace early in the piece to trouble the hosts. Just as he did in the first half against Leicester on Monday Pep Guardiola betrayed his anxiety by mooching about the technical area staring at the ground with his hands stuffed in his pockets. And then 26 minutes in the unthinkable happened, Glenn Murray got his big, brave head to a corner at the near post to put Brighton ahead.
The Amex convulsed. Grown men and women wearing hats with inflatable seagulls spread their wings and bawled their excitement into the bright blue sky. Thunderbirds by another name. Off came the Pep grey coat. This was it. Time to get serious. And how. City went straight up the other end to equalise, the Brighton defence asleep as Sergio Aguero feasted on a loose ball in the six-yard box. Ten minutes later City were celebrating again, Aymeric Laporte resurrecting the lost art of the centre-half’s header to connect with a cross from Riyad Mahrez. Did Catalan Pep like that, setting forth into a kind of dissident Spanish two-step with Basque assistant Mikel Arteta.
Into the second half we went, the rhythm of the match, the season, the epoch unbroken. City’s possession game is a wondrous thing, but if the opposition is either unwilling or unable to counter it, the spectacle quickly invites us to reach for the knitting. With City only one goal to the good there was always the possibility of mischief but even this was denied the audience when Mahrez reprised his Leicester schtick with a strike of outstanding beauty, feinting with his left, rinsing his defender and roofing the ball with his right.
Beat that, he might have said. Ilkay Gundogan gave it a decent crack, bending in a fine free-kick for the fourth to embroider what might just be the greatest campaign in English football history. Guardiola was doing somersaults now. There were 18 minutes left on the clock, the only time since August that Guardiola had been free of tension, the first time since Christmas he could not have given a damn about what was happening at Liverpool.
Right until the last Jurgen Klopp’s team had done the title race the service of making City earn their crown. On this final afternoon Brighton too had played their part, at times pushing Guardiola to the limit of emotional endurance. In the end his team released him from the agony of waiting as only they can.