MANCHESTER, England — In Pep Guardiola’s thoughts, it was over. As he trudged from the sector at St. James’s Park in late January, flanked by his teaching employees, Guardiola, the Manchester City supervisor, was satisfied that defeat by the hands of Newcastle United had stripped the Premier League title from his grasp.
The subsequent night time, he was certain, first-place Liverpool would beat Leicester City and restore its seven-point benefit on the high of the desk. In the tunnel, that night time, that benefit appeared unassailable.
With two of his most trusted associates, Mikel Arteta, his assistant supervisor, and Rodolfo Borrell, the first-team coach, Guardiola ticked by way of the explanations that had led to this. He didn’t blame his gamers a lot as England’s hectic Christmas interval, the sheer variety of video games. He had rotated his squad as a lot as he may to deal with the workload; a lot, in reality, that he felt it had interrupted the gamers’ rhythm. There was no quantity of relaxation that will be sufficient.
A number of months later, Guardiola sat in entrance of the information media on the Etihad Stadium, insisting nothing was completed. The temper exterior — because the followers, in raptures, saluted City’s gamers on their conventional lap of honor — advised in any other case. Manchester City had overwhelmed Leicester, thanks to the primary long-range objective Vincent Kompany had scored in greater than a decade in England. A single sport remained in the Premier League season. Manchester City led Liverpool by a level. The trophy was so shut Guardiola may virtually contact it.
What occurred in the intervening three months is a title race unmatched in fashionable English historical past. Since that defeat at Newcastle, Manchester City has not dropped a lot as a level. Should, as anticipated, Guardiola’s workforce overcome Brighton on the ultimate day of the season on Sunday, City may have received 14 straight video games.
That remorseless tempo meant City may, slowly and certainly, reel Liverpool again in.
Jürgen Klopp’s workforce didn’t beat Leicester, as Guardiola anticipated; as a substitute, that sport would end up to be the primary of 4 attracts in six video games, handing the initiative in the title race again to City, the reigning champion. On April 24, thanks to a win towards Manchester United at Old Trafford, City finally took an outright lead in the desk. It has not relinquished it.
From the surface, it’s straightforward to have a look at the 2 contenders and see one, in mild blue, casually slipping by way of the gears and coasting by way of video games, its progress serene and unstoppable; and one other, in purple, straining each sinew and shredding each nerve, scratching and clawing to stave off the juggernaut searching it down.
On the within, although, the image has been way more complicated. Those who’ve skilled these previous couple of weeks, when the slightest mistake may need proved deadly, don’t acknowledge the depiction of a Manchester City reliant on class and Liverpool on character, of 1 workforce overcoming a technical problem and the opposite a psychological one. Both have felt the stresses and the strains; each have identified, for months, that there was no margin for error.
As early as November, when Liverpool’s gamers gathered collectively away from Klopp and his teaching employees to decide over the membership’s limp defeat to Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League, there was a sense that the harm from any such setback in the Premier League — even at that stage of the season — may be irreparable. Produce the kind of efficiency that they had in Serbia in a home sport, Liverpool’s gamers determined, and any hope in any way of a Premier League title would evaporate. City may slip; they may not afford to.
By late January — solely a few weeks after City had overwhelmed Liverpool to regain some momentum in the race — Guardiola was of the same mind, resigned to the apparently inevitable in the tunnel at St. James’s Park. He did not watch Liverpool play Leicester the next night, preferring to watch “Jersey Boys” at Manchester’s Palace Theater. When he emerged, he knew his team had a reprieve. He was determined not to waste it.
One of the aspects of Guardiola’s management that players notice the most are the meetings: he holds lots of meetings. In the last three months, though, they have become notably shorter, straight to the point. His messages have been simple: Do not expect Liverpool to lose; do not expect someone else to do you a favor; do not waste all the work you have put in.
His players have noticed an emotional edge to his tone. Others say he has, at moments, seemed more intense than usual, though he is never exactly a relaxed figure at the best of times. Earlier this season, an edict was passed down that all extracurricular activities — promotional work, media appearances and the like — were to be run by the technical staff. Guardiola wanted no distractions.
He has, though, done all he can to persuade his players not to allow the pressure to consume them. He demands complete concentration while they are under his aegis, but has encouraged them to switch off from soccer when the working day is done. His decision to go to the theater the night after the Newcastle defeat, then, can be read as leading by example.
The approach has met with some success. Though most of City’s players have watched most of Liverpool’s games — one has noted, forlornly, that he switches on when friends message to point out that Klopp’s team looks like it might falter, only to watch a goal fly in almost immediately — and though it has been arduous, seeing their hopes dashed so frequently, it has not become an obsession.
On the afternoon of April 14, for example, after City had beaten Crystal Palace, the team bus was not filled with players watching Liverpool play Chelsea. Several chose to watch Tiger Woods’s final round at the Masters instead. Ilkay Gundogan tuned in to Galatasaray’s game with Fenerbahce, the biggest derby in Turkey.
A few minutes beforehand at Anfield, meanwhile, Liverpool’s squad had not been poring over City’s game. They, too, had been watching Woods. They returned to the golf as soon as victory had been confirmed, with the squad’s golf enthusiasts — James Milner and Andy Robertson among them — making a point of congratulating Mohamed Salah for his wonderful, clinching goal before piling into the physiotherapist’s room to track what was happening at Augusta National.
Klopp has urged his team not to think too much about City’s results. Both Milner and Joel Matip have said they followed his advice: It would have been a “waste of energy” to watch the Manchester derby, Milner said. He went out for dinner instead. On Monday, though, the temptation proved too much to resist. On the night that Kompany rode to City’s rescue, the WhatsApp messages of Liverpool’s squad were dominated by one emoji: the one of the head exploding.
For the most part, though, Klopp has tried to instill a sense of calm into his players in the most high-pressure situation many of them have experienced. Though public perception of Klopp is of a raucous, track-suited bear prowling the touchline, his players describe him as cool and methodical behind closed doors. His belief has long been that if Liverpool can take Manchester City to the final day — as it has managed — then there is nothing more that he can ask of his squad.
That may, of course, not be enough. Even if Liverpool beats Wolves on Sunday, even if it goes through the season suffering only a single defeat, even if it posts a total of 97 points, the third-best campaign in English history, it still might finish second.
Should that happen, some would look back to the defeat at City, or the draw with Leicester, as the point at which the title was lost. In Manchester, though, they might pinpoint another moment: the day it was won.
Manchester City’s players were shattered by elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Tottenham last month: not simply the fact of it, but the nature, too, of seeing progression snatched away by video review.
Three days later, Tottenham visited the Etihad again, this time in the Premier League. It presented not only a chance for revenge, but a reminder of how quickly glory can disappear. City had rarely beaten Spurs easily in previous seasons; the game loomed in Guardiola’s players’ minds. It was a warm, tense afternoon. Phil Foden scored early, his first Premier League goal, but for almost the first time, the team seemed inhibited, conscious of what was at stake.
Still, City survived. Still, City emerged victorious. It was a potent moment: If Guardiola’s players could come through that, they felt, then they could come through anything. Brighton, on Sunday, is the final test. They know they will need to win. It has been like that for months, since Newcastle, since Leicester, for City, and for Liverpool: no rest, no respite, a long straight sprint to the line.