Several stories unfolded at once at Selhurst Park, even when it looked like nothing was afoot. Manchester City started sluggishly and did not manage a shot on target in the first half yet they emerged as comprehensive winners, a fact that sums up this season’s title race.
That they could dispose of mid-table opponents with something close to a shadow side, assembled at an average cost of more than £42m per player, says plenty about the depth of City’s squad and pockets. Their third title in four seasons will be confirmed if Liverpool help them by beating Manchester United on Sunday, and that, too, tells a tale.
It is tempting to smear Liverpool as the worst champions since Andy Ruiz Jr but that does not really stack up. A closer comparison may be with Pheidippides, the messenger of lore who completed his marathon errand and then, upon declaring “joy, we have won!”, collapsed and expired. Let us not get into whether Jordan Pickford has an alibi for circa 490BC; the point is that the sheer exertion of beating City to the title last season after running them agonisingly close the previous year ultimately broke Jürgen Klopp’s team. Klopp may reflect that he should have dispatched his players to whatever holiday destinations were available as soon as they clinched the title last season rather than spend the final seven matches vainly chasing the 100-point milestone.
The thing is, of course, that for a while it looked like City were the broken side. After eight matches of this campaign they straggled in 11th position. A month later City still looked strangely bereft. After they trudged to a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in December, Pep Guardiola demanded an improvement for their next match but they panted to a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom. They used to tear teams asunder but their sharpness seemed to have faded, inspiration only flickered. Yet Guardiola had other ideas.
His great achievement this season is that he found new ways to stimulate his team and new ways to win. Last season eight teams made more lineup changes than the eventual champions, Liverpool, but this season no one has made as many as Guardiola. Being able to do that is a luxury; knowing how to do it well takes acumen. That, and the inadequacies of others, is what enabled City to recover and find an irresistible stride.
The manager coaxed outstanding performances out of players who, for different reasons, had contributed only fitfully before, most obviously Ilkay Gündogan, João Cancelo and even John Stones. Riyad Mahrez has had his best campaign to date for the club and Phil Foden has been inducted expertly into the team, evolving from an infrequent starter – he began only one of 10 matches from late October to early January – to a key creative influence.
None of Gündogan, Foden, Stones or Mahrez played against Crystal Palace and nor did Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias or Bernardo Silva. All will probably start Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, when City will aim to dominate the French champions like they did in the second half of the first leg. During that match a French television microphone picked up Idrissa Gueye grumbling, as he made his way off the pitch after earning a red card borne of frustration, that: “They are toying with us like you wouldn’t believe.”
That has been a recurring sense this season: that City have been playing with opponents, manipulating them as they please, keeping them at arm’s length while searching for ways to bring them to their knees. They have been more patient, more considered than ever, simultaneously trying to disorient opponents while working through their own issues.
At Palace this was evident again. Guardiola made eight changes to his team from the game against PSG and used a different formation, with two strikers rather than none and three centre-backs rather than two.
At first City looked a little unsure of themselves going forward, with Raheem Sterling and even Sergio Agüero hesitant. The 21st minute brought the almost incomprehensible sight of Agüero trying to pick out a difficult pass to Sterling when he himself had a clear shot from eight yards.
But City never lost their heads. They found their groove in the second half. Soon Agüero showed his enduring class. In the 57th minute he ran on to a smart low cross from the left by Benjamin Mendy, who delivered several. He took a touch to tee himself up and then lashed the ball into the net before the goalkeeper understood what he was up to. Palace were still reeling when, 84 seconds later, Ferran Torres made the outcome seem inevitable.