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On Soccer: Inside a Premier League Title Race in Which No One Dared to Blink

MANCHESTER, England — In Pep Guardiola’s mind, it was over. As he trudged from the field at St. James’s Park in late January, flanked by his coaching staff, Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, was convinced that defeat at the hands of Newcastle United had stripped the Premier League title from his grasp.

The next night, he was sure, first-place Liverpool would beat Leicester City and restore its seven-point advantage at the top of the table. In the tunnel, that night, that advantage seemed unassailable.

With two of his most trusted associates, Mikel Arteta, his assistant manager, and Rodolfo Borrell, the first-team coach, Guardiola ticked through the reasons that had led to this. He did not blame his players so much as England’s hectic Christmas period, the sheer number of games. He had rotated his squad as much as he could to cope with the workload; so much, in fact, that he felt it had interrupted the players’ rhythm. There was no amount of rest that would be enough.

A few months later, Guardiola sat in front of the news media at the Etihad Stadium, insisting nothing was finished. The mood outside — as the fans, in raptures, saluted City’s players on their traditional lap of honor — suggested otherwise. Manchester City had beaten Leicester, thanks to the first long-range goal Vincent Kompany had scored in more than a decade in England. A single game remained in the Premier League season. Manchester City led Liverpool by a point. The trophy was so close Guardiola could almost touch it.

What happened in the intervening three months is a title race unmatched in modern English history. Since that defeat at Newcastle, Manchester City has not dropped so much as a point. Should, as expected, Guardiola’s team overcome Brighton on the final day of the season on Sunday, City will have won 14 straight games.

That remorseless pace meant City could, slowly and surely, reel Liverpool back in.

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Pep Guardiola, front, thought Manchester City had handed the Premier League title to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in January. But there was plenty of race still to run.CreditCarl Recine/Reuters

Jürgen Klopp’s team did not beat Leicester, as Guardiola expected; instead, that game would turn out to be the first of four draws in six games, handing the initiative in the title race back to City, the reigning champion. On April 24, thanks to a win against Manchester United at Old Trafford, City at last took an outright lead in the table. It has not relinquished it.

From the outside, it is easy to look at the two contenders and see one, in light blue, casually slipping through the gears and coasting through games, its progress serene and unstoppable; and another, in red, straining every sinew and shredding every nerve, scratching and clawing to stave off the juggernaut hunting it down.

On the inside, though, the picture has been much more complex. Those who have experienced these last few weeks, when the slightest mistake might have proved fatal, do not recognize the depiction of a Manchester City reliant on class and Liverpool on character, of one team overcoming a technical challenge and the other a psychological one. Both have felt the stresses and the strains; both have known, for months, that there was no margin for error.

As early as November, when Liverpool’s players gathered together away from Klopp and his coaching staff to pick over the club’s limp defeat to Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League, there was a sense that the damage from any such setback in the Premier League — even at that stage of the season — might be irreparable. Produce the sort of performance they had in Serbia in a domestic game, Liverpool’s players decided, and any hope whatsoever of a Premier League title would evaporate. City might slip; they could not afford to.

By late January — only a few weeks after City had beaten 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.

Klopp with Mohammed Salah after Liverpool’s draw against Leicester City, one of several ties that left the door open for Manchester City.CreditPeter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock

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.

Sergio Agüero and Manchester City have won 13 Premier League games in a row. One more on Sunday will deliver a repeat title.CreditOli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah with Manchester City’s Fernandinho at Anfield in October.CreditRui Vieira/Associated Press

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.

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