In the end there was to be no denying Manchester City, no excruciating stress to endure as Brighton & Hove Albion repelled the barrage whipped up by the visitors on the south coast and no nail-biting finale as City strained for a winner while news filtered through of Liverpool’s ascendancy on distant Merseyside. What tension that existed here had been lanced after a little over an hour. Everything thereafter was a celebration of the champions’ excellence.
City know they have been challenged this year, stretched wonderfully by Liverpool’s startling progress. The mind-boggling tally of points collected by Jürgen Klopp’s side would have been enough to claim the championship in all but three of the previous 119 campaigns based on three points for a win and yet it was still not enough to overhaul Pep Guardiola’s team.
They have won 198 points across two seasons, a staggering haul. Their 95th top-flight goal of the campaign, a free-kick whipped sumptuously into the top corner by Ilkay Gündogan, summed it all up. Mat Ryan sprang to his left but could not lay a glove on it. Opponents have been trying and failing to do that with City all season
Not for a decade has a side retained this title but the form mustered in the run-in – 14 successive wins stretching back to a defeat at Newcastle in late January – represented a blistering response to the challenge on their authority being mustered from Anfield. Times had been slightly more trying over recent weeks when Liverpool simply would not let up, with a succession of slender wins keeping the holders marginally ahead, and there would be early pangs of anxiety here against opponents liberated from their fears of relegation.
Brighton were more adventurous than normal and Glenn Murray’s header, the striker reaching Pascal Gross’s corner ahead of a flailing Ederson, had represented City’s first deficit in a Premier League match since that defeat at St James’ Park.
Perhaps uncertainty would have crept in if that advantage had held a little longer, say to the interval. Maybe City would have wilted as they chased the contest, particularly with confirmation of Sadio Mané’s goal at Anfield having rippled round the arena. In hindsight neither of those seemed remotely plausible. The worst thing Brighton could have done was to provoke them. Where the visitors had initially been laboured in their monopoly of possession, prone to over-elaboration as they ran aground on Albion’s resistance, the shock of shipping that opener shook them awake
Suddenly there was urgency. Instantly there was incision. The hope that flared up on Merseyside was snuffed out in 83 seconds as Aymeric Laporte and David Silva, with a flick Chris Hughton described as “sublime”, sent Sergio Agüero into space within sight of goal. The striker slipped a crisp shot through the on-rushing Ryan and in an instant the champions’ momentum had been restored. “The most important thing was this team went behind but came back immediately,” said Raheem Sterling. “The manager here is all about mentality: it’s about winning no matter what. I’m just happy to be under his wing.”
There was an air of inevitability about so much that followed, with Brighton never likely to withstand the onslaught that ensued. Ryan may have done well to deny Bernardo Silva’s diving header but there was pizzazz to City’s passing again and a far more upbeat tempo to their movement. They smothered the life out of their hosts in what remained of the first half, swarming over panicked opponents.
Murray’s poor pass would present the ball to David Silva, with Ryan doing well to deny Riyad Mahrez. Unperturbed, the Algerian swung over the corner and Laporte, having evaded Murray, thumped his header down and in from the edge of the six-yard box. The Frenchman has been a pillar of strength all season. It was fitting he should draw the focus on the league season’s final day.
If there was anxiety to endure thereafter, it was mainly born of Guardiola’s pursuit of perfection. Ederson kept out Lewis Dunk’s free-kick but the City manager expected something more resounding than mere narrow success. It was only after Mahrez, on only a fourth league start this calendar year, gathered and tormented Dunk, cutting back inside to leave the centre-half crumpled on the turf, before ripping a glorious right-footed finish into the top corner via a touch off Ryan’s glove that the City manager acknowledged the race had in effect been won. He joined those on the visitors’ bench, from coaching staff to substitutes, in spilling out on to the turf, the goalscorer lost in the mess of joyous bodies. They knew there would be no coming back for either Albion or Liverpool from this.
The rest, from Gündogan’s free-kick to Vincent Kompany being granted the ovation he deserves as he departed the fray five minutes from time, was a celebration. This is the Belgian’s fourth Premier League title. “And by far the hardest and most draining,” said the captain, whose winner against Leicester last week ended up feeling like the campaign’s defining moment. “The first one was one in the last minute of the season [with Agüero’s goal back in 2012], but this was constantly knowing you had to win and perform.
“We defeated one of the all-time great teams in England, too. But, from the first meeting we had this season it’s all been about trying to get back-to-back titles, and, straight away, I knew we would achieve that.” Kompany and City have an FA Cup final to come next weekend as they attempt to secure an unprecedented domestic treble. It is hard to contemplate them being denied when they are as irresistible as this.