If Manchester City retain the Premier League title, the signs are they will have done it the boring way.
Sunday’s win at Crystal Palace — beyond a nine-minute spell after Luka Milivojevic’s clever free-kick to make it 2-1 — not a contest. And that has become a consistent theme.
If you seek drama and tension, or perhaps simply to be moved by football, City’s Premier League games are probably not for you. They are exhibitions of control and it is difficult, when they perform with this kind of clarity, to see them falling short in the title race.
For its vast majority, Sunday’s 3-1 win was almost identical to City’s two previous away trips in the league, against Fulham and Bournemouth. Both of those matches were stultifying. City did not concede a goalscoring chance in either, while making sure they did enough at the other end. Crystal Palace — a punchy and pugnacious side at their best, and shock winners at the Etihad in December — barely put up a fight here until that brief late rally. They showed no intention of taking any initiative and City exerted a level of domination that suffocated the game as a spectacle.
It was, for those who care about the league’s health, little fun to watch and the frequency with which games of this ilk are coming about is a concern. Not for Guardiola, though. Since Jan. 20, City have only won one Premier League game — the 6-0 humiliation of Chelsea — by more than two goals.
Nobody should kid themselves they are being dragged into tight, edgy contests, though. The intensity of their schedule, and the carrot of a “Quadruple”, means it makes no sense to go hell for leather when there is little need. Three days before a potentially season-defining Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Tottenham, with Guardiola’s men trailing 1-0 in the tie, City were able to keep the title race in their own hands without going through the gears.
“I’m so pleased,” Guardiola said. “We have to win every game if we want to make back-to-back titles, we know that, and they players have shown they want to do it. No doubts.”
Even if this was not a gripping contest, City still conjured up moments no other side in the country can. Raheem Sterling’s two goals, both excellently taken, bear re-watching and Kevin De Bruyne is showing signs of returning to his exhilarating best. There was a risk that City might suffer in midfield given that Fernandinho missed out with a minor injury, but De Bruyne covered every blade of grass. That is some boost at this stage of the campaign and Guardiola was effusive in his praise of a player who, even in such a richly talented squad, noticeably raises City’s level when on song.
“The last three or four games, he’s been incredible,” Guardiola said of De Bruyne, who set up Sterling’s first goal with a sublime pass and made a lung-busting run to assist Gabriel Jesus’ added-time clincher.
“We’d missed him a lot. He has that ability and vision the rest of human beings do not see. The pace on the final third from his passing is incredible. Of course he is fresh mentally and in his legs, too. That’s why, not just for the goals, he is so important for us in winning the game.”
They will have more need for that kind of performance when they face Spurs and Manchester United in their next two league games. Those two old foes should make far tougher demands of City; Guardiola believes they cannot afford to drop another point and City may be thankful they have been able to keep so much in reserve, so often.
Those games will presumably provide a few more moments of suspense for the neutral, too. It was understandable that Palace, who were exposed glaringly when their few attacking moves broke down, proceeded with such caution here but also dispiriting given that Roy Hodgson’s team are 11 points clear of relegation and, effectively, in a holding pattern until next season. Could they, and those before them, not have given it more of a go?
“[City are] a good team and will take some beating in any competition they play, and certainly it’s going to take a bit more than we here at Crystal Palace could produce today,” Hodgson said.
He was right about that; it just feels like a shame, with so many of their opponents doing little more than sit back in admiration, City’s title tilt is offering so little to get pulses racing.