After a season-long marathon of exchanging leads well ahead of a trailing pack, it all comes down to a three-game sprint for Manchester City and Liverpool.
After a season-long marathon of exchanging leads well ahead of a trailing pack, it all comes down to a sprint to the finish for Manchester City and Liverpool.
The two Premier League title contenders have a very clear set of directives from now until the season with one absolute certainty: there's no margin for error. And even then, that may not be enough for Liverpool. In the simplest scenario on the table, if Man City wins out, it repeats as champion and captures its fourth title in eight seasons and third in its last six. Anything less along the way–a draw or a loss–and Liverpool could leapfrog City for its first top-flight title in nearly three decades.
It's entirely possible that Liverpool will go the season with one loss–that being to Man City, in a match that included a circus-like sequence resulting in John Stones's goal-line clearance that prevented a goal by 11.7 millimeters.
It's entirely possible that Liverpool will put forth the third-greatest season in Premier League history. And it's possible that all of that will only be enough for second place.
Such is the standard set by Pep Guardiola's Man City, a side that will continue to have its critics for falling short in the Champions League but one that's ultimately been as ruthless as it gets domestically. The quadruple is no longer a possibility after a Champions League quarterfinal defeat to Tottenham, but an unprecedented domestic treble still is. The League Cup has already been won, the Premier League title is within reach and the club will close its season in the FA Cup final vs. Watford on May 18.
Where could potential pitfalls sit along the way? In an ironic twist, Brendan Rodgers could wind up having a significant say. The manager of Liverpool's side that literally slipped up in another heated race with City and missed out on the 2013-14 title by two points, he now coaches Leicester City, the second of Man City's three remaining opponents and a club that already beat Man City this season (albeit with Claude Puel as manager). He never sold his house on Merseyside, instead renting it out to his successor, Jurgen Klopp. One could think of no better gift from landlord to tenant than helping deliver the title.
Man City also has two tricky matches away from home, first at Burnley on Sunday and then the season finale at Brighton, a club that could be fighting for its Premier League survival. The last time City concluded a tense title charge against a relegation-threatened side, it nearly lost to QPR, requiring two goals in stoppage time and Sergio Aguero's famous strike at the death to wrest the title from Man United in 2012.
It's not as if Liverpool has a complete cakewalk, either. The Reds rolled through last-place Huddersfield Town on Friday, winning 5-0 and getting within striking range to make goal-differential a factor should the teams wind up level on points. But then things get complicated. Remaining alive in the quest for the Champions League is clearly desired, and Man City would gladly accept the same challenge, but it congests the fixture schedule for an already taxed side. In a span of six days, Liverpool will sandwich a tricky match away at former LFC manager Rafa Benitez's Newcastle with two high-intensity games vs. Barcelona. When the dust settles from that, there's still a season finale at home vs. Wolves–a side that's proven to be proficient against the Premier League's best.
If either does wind up slipping up, it will look back earlier in the season at a pair of stretches in which being slightly less than perfect wasn't enough. Man City inexplicably dropped three of four league games in December, losing to Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Leicester to make for a miserable holiday season. It has lost once in the league since. From January 30 to March 3, Liverpool went a stretch in which it drew four of six games, with each set of two points dropped becoming more costly than the last and allowing Man City back in contention.
The two surging sides have brought the best out of each other, forcing precision and perfection every step of the way. It's only appropriate that their race for the ages ends in the same fashion.