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Friday, June 14, 2024

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City cement their place among English football’s greatest teams

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And so, some 136 years after the foundation of the Football League, England finally has a team who have done the quartet. Manchester City are the first team to become champions in four consecutive seasons. Pep Guardiola has a historic achievement – another one, given the rare and unique distinctions he has engineered and amassed amid his own track record of unparalleled success. There is a debate to be had about whether this City side are the greatest England has seen, but they can claim to be the most relentless. Since the Club World Cup, they have taken 57 points from a possible 63. If Arsenal’s excellence left them with little room for error in the run-in, City made none, finishing with nine straight wins, each by at least two goals. They have turned winning into a routine: across games, months, seasons and an era.

There remains the odd juxtaposition of 115 still unheard charges and the brilliance of the homegrown Phil Foden, but for now, the latter proved the determining factor. Anyone subscribing to the notion that West Ham could deliver Arsenal the title, the Premier League a seismic upset, and David Moyes a glorious farewell was swiftly disabused of it. While City have endured final-day drama before, Guardiola’s prediction that this would be like the nerve-shredding last game against Aston Villa in 2022 proved very wrong. Mohammed Kudus produced a late contender for goal of the season, but only when City were already up. A goal ahead inside 80 seconds, two to the good within 20 minutes, this was a saunter in the sunshine. City were dominant, Foden rampant, his early double a further illustration of his capacity to score goals that are both important and excellent.

Phil Foden fires Manchester City in front (Reuters)

While Guardiola’s remarkable managerial career has brought 12 league titles in 15 seasons, at 23, Foden has won the Premier League for a sixth time. It underlines the scale of City’s success in recent years that, already, only five Manchester United greats – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Denis Irwin and Roy Keane – have more winners’ medals. It was symbolic, too, that City’s goal on the day came from their two best players over the season. Foden has delivered decisive contributions, often in spectacular style. He illustrated why he was named Footballer of the Year. Rodri, who finished third in the voting, added the third goal; scorer of a Champions League final winner a year ago, he added another telling strike. It came courtesy of a goalkeeping error, with Alphonse Areola merely pushing his low shot in, but a ninth goal of the campaign is a terrific return for a defensive midfielder.

Foden has three times as many, his 27 including 14 in the last 14 league games. He has powered City to glory, and, at the last, it was apt that he shone. He began with an immediate indication of why he has picked up the personal prizes. There was something clinically devastating about his opener: taking Bernardo Silva’s pass, beating James Ward-Prowse with his first touch and arrowing a shot into the top corner with his second. He doubled his tally with a similarly assured finish, again with his left foot. His first came from outside the penalty box, the second almost from the penalty spot, Foden sweeping in a shot from Jeremy Doku’s low cross.

Foden celebrates after scoring City’s second (Getty)
Rodri scores the third to wrap up the title (Getty Images)

Suitably buoyed, City threatened a rout. They had 10 shots on target in the first half; with the notable exception of Foden, they were profligate. A couple of misses from Erling Haaland – miscueing wide when the goal gaped, and skying a shot when set up by Doku – offered a snapshot of his season; a Golden Boot has come among the opportunities to score still more. But Guardiola’s decision to bring in Doku was rewarded, with the winger a livewire. He twice tested Areola with stinging shots. Kevin De Bruyne twice came close, too.

The only jolt to City came without warning. While Moyes’s style of football is a factor in his departure, he has made some gems of signings for West Ham, and the last goal of his reign was wondrous, Kudus scoring a magnificent overhead kick. There was a point in the past when City’s propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory would have made that the start of a comeback. Those days feel distant now, however, and not merely because Tomas Soucek’s late strike was disallowed for handball: this was the third time Guardiola’s City have won the title in the final game, holding their nerve on each occasion, and Rodri duly scored a third. It rendered events at the Emirates an irrelevance, though Foden’s rapid opener had already highlighted their capacity to demoralise their rivals.

Foden poses with the Premier League trophy (Action Images via Reuters)

“Are you watching, Arsenal?” came the chorus after Foden’s second goal. More often, however, the soundtrack was “Champions again”. And again, and again. And in the years since 1888, no one had mustered four in a row. Until now, and until Guardiola’s City.

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