The hard part is over for Manchester City. Pep Guardiola's side outclassed rival Manchester United at Old Trafford to go a point ahead of Liverpool, with each having three matches left in an intense title race.
Three more wins will ensure the Premier League title for Manchester City. After Wednesday's 2-0 win over Manchester United, only Burnley, Leicester and Brighton now stand between Pep Guardiola’s side and retaining the championship for the first time in the club’s history. There was significant improvement from Man United after Sunday’s limp defeat at Everton, but the major consolation for its fans will be less in the performance, in which there were still major concerns, than in the fact the loss at least made it less likely that Liverpool–the team they really hate–will win the title.
For 53 minutes United held out before Bernardo Silva, who has been consistently excellent this season both in midfield and on the right wing, broke the deadlock. Some 12 minutes later, substitute Leroy Sane capitalized on a break lead by Raheem Sterling to make it 2-0 with City’s 157th goal of the season in all competitions, breaking the record it set in 2013-14 under Manuel Pellegrini.
After City’s victory over Tottenham on Saturday, it feels as though the hardest work is now done. In a title race in which neither of the top two has dropped a point in more than two months, it feels as though somebody must still slip up at some point. Such relentlessness is extremely unusual, yet that is the pace City and Liverpool have set all season. The only negative for City was an injury suffered by Fernandinho early in the second half. City’s squad is deep, though, and Ilkay Gundogan is an obvious replacement–although the pair played from the start Wednesday–but it should be noted that the Brazilian's absence coincided with City’s downturn in form in December.
Prior to the start at Old Trafford, a violent storm a couple of hours before the opening kick had led to a cascade from a hole in the roof, and several lesser streams from smaller leaks, indicative of the way a lack of investment has left the stadium looking a little shabby but also a symbol of the wider neglect of infrastructure since the Glazer family took ownership of the club in 2005. The weather seemed appropriate given the general mood.
The recriminations from Sunday’s defeat to Everton continued to rumble before kickoff with former United captain Roy Keane laying in to the current squad.
“There's too many bluffers at this club to get Man United back to the top," he said.
He then turned his focus to Paul Pogba, responding to an interview in which the midfielder promised to put right the wrongs of Sunday. "I wouldn't believe a word he says. There is no meaning in it. The guy is a talented boy, but the number of times I have seen him in games and he is not sprinting back or running back. He is a problem."
On the pitch, at least, there was a positive reaction after Sunday's defeat. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lineup, with three central defenders protected by three central midfielders, is not something that will satisfy the Old Trafford faithful in the long term, but right now, needs become the priority. After the limpness at Goodison Park, at least here there was fight and, for the first time in the league since March 9, City did not take the lead within the first 15 minutes. United as a whole ran 8 kilometers less than Everton in Sunday’s game, but by halftime here the three players who had run the furthest were all United players.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough. It’s probably not enough for United to go into a major game with making some kind of fight of it the main aspiration, and it wasn’t enough in terms of getting anything out of the game. After United had worked so hard, the goal that turned the game City’s way was very simple, as Bernardo Silva wobbled inside and slightly scuffed a shot that beat David De Gea at his near post. Not for the first time in recent weeks, the United keeper was left looking a little flat-footed. He was at fault for the second as well, getting a foot to Sane’s shot but unable to keep it out.
By that point, the gulf between the sides was obvious, and United almost visibly deflated. Pogba, having contributed little, ended the game so disillusioned that at one point he was outjumped by Sterling, a player eight inches shorter than him. There was never any sense of a fightback, never the sort of siege the United of old might had laid.
Effort should be a prerequisite, and while that had returned, for most of the game at least, the basic fact is that this United is nowhere near as good as this City. For United that’s seven defeats in the last nine games and no goals from open play in 527 minutes, the full scale of Solskjaer’s task becoming more apparent by the day.
For City, meanwhile, focus shifts to Burnley and the third-to-last hurdle between it and a sixth league title.