Relentless:
The story of the 2018/19 Premier League title race

August: Let’s do this...

We have a lot of players with a lack of condition but we are more than two seasons together and know what to do. We made a good performance in general and day by day we will get better and better. I am privileged to be manager of Manchester City. They have given me a fantastic squad. I cannot complain for one minute.
Pep Guardiola

“So,” the question might well have been, “how do you follow that?”

How, indeed?

Just a few months before, City had coasted spectacularly across the finish line with a perfectly scripted Gabriel Jesus stoppage time winner against Southampton to set the ‘Centurions’ tag in stone.

The rest of the Premier League had been powerless to stop Pep Guardiola’s side and by March, winning the title had been a formality.

Arguably, the only side who had even slightly ruffled the Blues’ feathers was Liverpool, who had beaten City 4-3 in the Premier League at Anfield – one of only two defeats in the entire 17/18 league campaign – and then both home and away in the Champions League.

The 5-0 victory at the Etihad against Liverpool had been well and truly erased and, despite finishing 25 points behind the champions, Jurgen Klopp’s side were only going to improve.

Still, the 19-point winning title margin over nearest challengers Manchester United suggested that City would still be the team to stop in 2018/19, though it was imperative the defending champions hit the ground running when the new season began.

Riyad Mahrez (pictured above) was added to the squad during the summer, but was the only major signing for City who, quite rightly, felt there was no need to fix something that clearly wasn’t broken.

The curtain-raiser to the English season, the FA Community Shield, pit City with a difficult-looking clash with Chelsea at Wembley, but a 2-0 win courtesy of a Sergio Aguero brace gave the Blues the perfect start to the new campaign.

A week later, City returned to the capital to take on Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. Like Chelsea, the Gunners were also under new management and represented a sizeable obstacle to begin the Premier League title defence at – but we shouldn’t have agonised too much, as goals from Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva secured an impressive 2-0 win.

The champions had their stall out and the message was clear – we were still the team to beat.

Liverpool, however, started equally well with a comfortable 4-0 win over West Ham United at Anfield, giving Klopp’s men equal cause for optimism.

With City’s home campaign beginning with a 6-1 win over Huddersfield Town a week later, the champions were already sending out ominous warnings that there would be no Centurions hangover – not on Pep’s watch – and the rest of the Premier League had been duly warned – it was, it seemed, business as usual for the Blues.

Liverpool responded with a 2-0 win at Crystal Palace, but they were one of six teams in total to take maximum points from their opening two games. Chelsea, Spurs, Bournemouth and Watford also boasted embryonic 100% records.

City ended the month with a trip to the Black Country to face newly promoted Wolves in a Saturday lunchtime kick-off. It’s probably fair to say Wolves enjoyed being described as ‘the Championship Man City’ with their free-flowing, easy-on-the-eye style earning Nuno Esprito Santo’s side a handful for anyone at Molineux.

The Blues had won their previous eight competitive games on the road, but were far from their regal best against Wolves and when Willy Boly’s stumble inside the six-yard box appeared to end in the back of the City net via the defender’s arm, Pep Guardiola could only lament the fact that VAR for Premier League games was still a year off – particularly when TV replays showed Boly had indeed handled the ball. No matter – the goal stood.

The champions were behind and needed a response. It had been eight months since the Blues had last trailed a Premier League game, and a loss so early in the campaign to a newly promoted side would have removed the aura of near-invincibility City had created the previous season.

Fortunately, a thundering header from Aymeric Laporte on 69 minutes drew City level and though the game ended 1-1, Aguero hit the post David Silva might have had a penalty on another day. Combined with the Boly goal that shouldn’t have stood and the general feeling was the Blues had been slightly hard done by.

After the game, Pep said: “It was a very good point. We created chances but their keeper made saves, so today we draw. We knew how good they were last season. No complaints. We created a lot, that's why it's good. In the first half, Aguero hit the post - sometimes it goes in, sometimes not.”

Liverpool, meanwhile, laboured to a 1-0 win over Brighton a few hours later. Three games in and Klopp’s side had a two-point advantage. It didn’t feel significant, but they had started marginally better. Still, early days.

September: As you were, City

I think this Man City team will turn quite a few teams over this season...
Neil Warnock, Cardiff City boss

The general feeling that City had a month of winnable games while Liverpool’s September looked extremely difficult on paper made for an interesting month.

Chelsea, Spurs and Watford were all still doing well, and it was City who started the next round of fixtures with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Newcastle United.  Liverpool also had to battle for a 2-1 win at Leicester, leading into the first international break of the season.

The TV schedules would often have Liverpool and City starting at different times and it was Liverpool who were first in action after the break with an impressive 2-1 away to Tottenham, and though City brushed aside the challenge of Fulham (3-0), Chelsea were emerging as a genuine threat after a 4-1 win over Cardiff left Maurizio Sarri’s side top of the table on goal difference.

On September 22, a rarity as City and Liverpool kicked off at 3pm – and both enjoyed comfortable wins with the Blues thrashing Cardiff City 5-0 in South Wales and Liverpool cruising home 3-0 against Southampton.

Chelsea dropped points for the first time as they were held 0-0 by West Ham.

City ended the month by beating Brighton 2-0 and Liverpool, who kicked off a couple of hours later showed their resilience by grabbing a last-gasp equaliser away to Chelsea to earn a precious 1-1 draw and preserve their unbeaten start.

It meant that City regained top spot on goal difference, but the biggest test of the campaign was quickly looming into view…

October: Opportunity missed?

Liverpool had twice given City extremely tough encounters at Anfield earlier in the year, with the Blues conceding seven goals. If there had been a criticism from the two losses suffered, it was perhaps that City had been too adventurous and been punished as a result.

It was still very early in the campaign when Pep took his side to Anfield, but the occasion had a special feel to it, as though the meetings between City and Liverpool would shape each other’s season.

The respect each team had for each other was clear throughout, with neither side prepared to go all out attack and test the other’s resolve, but while the Reds escaped to decent penalty shouts from City, the third resulted in the referee pointing to the spot. There were just five minutes remaining and despite Gabriel Jesus’ eagerness to take the penalty, Riyad Mahrez felt confident enough to take responsibility – but as his effort blazed over, the Blues were left to rue the first real chance to move clear of the Reds with the 0-0 draw preserving both unbeaten records.

"It is a very intense, an unbelievable challenge to face Manchester City always - I've said that before - and as the last game of an intense period, it makes the challenge even bigger, so I am really happy with what the boys did. We've played City now that often and they're just outstanding."
Jurgen Klopp

Liverpool, quite rightly, felt they’d come through a difficult run of games intact going into the next international break and while they weren’t quite the attacking juggernaut they had been at time the previous campaign, the form of Virgil van Dijk and addition of keeper Allison Becker had made a huge difference to their defence.

The league programme resumed a fortnight later and City kicked off proceedings with a comfortable win over Joe Hart’s Burnley at the Etihad. If the 5-0 win had been impressive. Liverpool’s narrow 1-0 win at Huddersfield was anything but – though it did prove that Klopp’s side had found a way to win without playing particularly well.

The Reds finished the month with a 4-1 win over Neil Warnock’s Cardiff, with the Blues not in action for another 48 hours with a difficult trip to Wembley to face Tottenham – who could leapfrog the champions - to come. On a pitch that still resembled an NFL field complete with barely disguised markings, the Blues overcame a poor surface to edge a crucial win courtesy of Mahrez’s sixth-minute strike.

City remained top going into November, level on points with Liverpool with Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs all tucked in close behind.

November: Nip and tuck

Liverpool started the month 24 hours ahead of City’s game but couldn’t take advantage as they drew 0-0 away to Arsenal. The Blues had no such problem dispatching Southampton at the Etihad, racing into a 4-1 lead at the break and going on to win 6-1. Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Palace meant Liverpool dipped to third in the table, though just two points separated the top three side.

Neither City or Liverpool were showing signs of fragility and with the chasing pack starting to take points off each other, by the end of the month both title challengers were threatening to pull clear at the top. The Blues saw off Manchester United 3-1 and then thrashed West Ham United 4-0 at the London Stadium, while Liverpool beat Fulham 2-0 at Anfield and Watford 3-0 at Vicarage Road.

Two teams, focused, defensively strong and blessed with free-scoring attacks and going neck and neck. For City, however, December would be anything but magic…

December: Advantage Liverpool?

The Blues kicked off December with a 3-1 win over Bournemouth before City fans settled down to watch the Merseyside derby. Though Everton’s record at Anfield was poor, the Toffees frustrated Klopp’s side and as the game moved into added time still goalless, it looked like Liverpool would drop points to their nearest rivals.

But on 96 minutes, van Dijk’s hopeful punt was inexplicably pawed into play by Everton keeper Jordan Pickford allowing sub Divock Origi the simplest of headers to win the game. It’s fair to say a few TV remotes were hurled across the room at that point as the growing belief that Liverpool were in for the long haul grew with each passing game.

City then endured a tricky end to what had otherwise been a comfortable visit to Watford, clinging on to win 2-1 despite a late onslaught from the Hornets and, crucially, go five points clear of Liverpool for 24 hours. The Reds again reduced the arrears, coming from behind to beat Burnley 3-1 at Turf Moor.

As Christmas approached, the Blues – still in all four competitions – had a serious wobble.

The first serious blow landed to City’s title hopes came at Stamford Bridge, where – despite an excellent first 45 minutes – fell behind on the stroke of half-time to Ngolo Kante’s goal. Chelsea added a second late on to secure a 2-0 win and end the Blues’ unbeaten start to the season and a 21-game unbeaten Premier League run.

Liverpool seized the initiative with a 4-0 win at Bournemouth to go top, but things were about to get worse. Much worse.

Though the Blues saw off Everton 3-1 at the Etihad, Liverpool beat Manchester United by the same score-line to maintain their slender advantage. The Reds also played their next game 24 hours earlier and confidently dispatched Wolves 2-0 at Molineux to move four points clear at the top.

Jurgen Klopp said his team were playing “perfect football” and City, at home to struggling Crystal Palace, had to respond.

When Ilkay Gundogan’s header on 27 minutes put the Blues ahead, there seemed little doubt that the Blues would go on and win comfortably, but just eight minutes later, Palace were 2-1 up, the second goal an absolute stunner from Andros Townsend.

Worse was to come as the lively Palace belied their lowly position with a third from the penalty spot on 52 minutes following a clumsy Kyle Walker challenge. Kevin De Bruyne, absent for most of the campaign with a knee injury, pulled a late goal back but Palace held on to win 3-2 and send shock-waves throughout the Premier League and beyond.

Not only had Roy Hodgson’s side beaten City, they had done so on merit and in our own backyard.

An instant response was needed and the Boxing Day trip to Leicester provided exactly that.

Both City and Liverpool kicked off at 3pm, but while the Blues suddenly looked a little vulnerable, so Liverpool look invigorated, determined to grasp the opportunity Palace had given them – and Klopp’s side didn’t disappoint as they swept Rafa Benitez’s team aside with a 4-0 win at Anfield.

The Blues took the initiative at the King Power with Bernardo Silva’s 14th-minute strike, but the Foxes, sniffing blood and a rarely seen apprehensiveness from City, soon levelled and Ricardo Pereira’s late winner completed a miserable festive period for the champions who now trailed Liverpool by seven points – a gap, that suddenly felt as wide as the Merseyside tunnel.

Pep admitted his team was suffering when he said: “It was a similar performance to the Crystal Palace game, we started well but conceded a goal the first time they arrived in our box. Mentally we are lacking confidence in that situation.

"We have to accept it; we have to realise that we have to work harder and try to get immediately one good result and get our confidence back.”

City knew another slip would probably be a bridge too far and so headed to Southampton needing to end the year with nothing less than a victory, but the pressure on the champions had never been more severe after Liverpool’s 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal had increased their lead at the top to 10 points ahead of the clash at St Mary’s.

The Blues boss was confident his team would deliver and put what had been a severe hiccup behind them – and by the break, City led Saints 3-1. There would be no further goals, the gap was reduced to seven points and the first fixture of the New Year was Liverpool at home, where nothing less than a victory would do for the Blues.

January: The fightback begins

There was a tension in the air as City and Liverpool began their latest titanic tussle.

For the Blues, a victory would not only end the Merseysiders’ uneaten start, it would reduce the gap to the leaders to just four – a loss would see a surely insurmountable 10-point advantage for Klopp’s side and only 17 games remaining.

If Pep felt his team had been mentally fragile towards the end of December, they were anything but for this tense, blood and thunder contest. Liverpool came within a whisker of taking the lead on 19 minutes when a scramble in the City box sees a clearance whacked at Ederson and as the ball rolled towards the net somehow, John Stones managed to hook it clear. How close was it? This close...

The Blues had survived by the width of a five pence and never looked back. Sergio Aguero drew first blood with a thumping shot flashing past Allison just before the break, but Roberto Firmino levelled on 64 to keep the match finely balanced.

There were chances at either end, but City stood strong and on 79 minutes, Leroy Sane’s low shot beat Allison to send the Etihad wild. The relief was palpable. Afterwards, Pep said: "All credit to these incredible players. That is how we have to play in the Champions League. Both teams tried to search for each other, we were not scared, we had no fear and we had a lot of pressure.

"They are leaders - it is four points, but we have reduced the gap. We knew that if we won, we would be in contention to fight for the Premier league, if we lose it is over. I don't remember a league so tough, there are so many huge contenders fighting for the title. Every game is a final."
Pep Guardiola

If Liverpool had got under City’s skin, this was a result that left the Reds wondering ‘what if?’ Suddenly, it was game on again.

City followed that win with uncomplicated 3-0 victories over Wolves and Huddersfield, while Liverpool held their nerve with a 1-0 win at Brighton and 4-3 win over Crystal Palace at Anfield where a couple of goalkeeping howlers from visiting keeper Julian Speroni were not warmly received in the blue half of Manchester.

Next up, the Blues had the chance to move within a point of Liverpool with a game against Newcastle 24 hours before the Reds hosted Leicester. City could hardly have started better on Tyneside, taking the lead after 24 seconds through Aguero, but the failure to capitalise on that flying start allowed the Magpies’ belief to grow and when Solomon Rondon levelled on 66 minutes, the doubt that had surfaced around Christmas seemed to re-emerge and when Fernandinho’s challenge resulted in a penalty, converted by Matt Ritchie.

After working so hard to get back in the title race, had the Blues now shot themselves in the foot?

It would be 24 hours later before we would find out – could the misfiring Foxes really pull off a surprise? Surely Klopp’s side wouldn’t miss the chance to reassert their a seven-point gap? When Sadio Mane opened the scoring after three minutes, it seemed not – but Leicester held on, dug in and gradually started to claw their way back into the game and, on half-time, Harry Maguire levelled the scores.

If City had shown apprehension, now it was Liverpool’s turn and by the end of the game, the Foxes were unlucky not to have taken all three points. Klopp said later, "We have a point more than before - it is not exactly what we wanted to have, but still everything is fine.”

It must have been worrying for the former Borussia Dortmund boss that his team had not only let City off once, they’d now done it again and while a five-point gap was something Liverpool would have happily accepted going into February, there must have been a feeling that the Blues were not going to keep stuttering.

February: Blues up the ante

To score six against Chelsea and the way we played, we had so much attention. We did it, it's an incredible compliment to the players, they are outstanding
PEP GUARDIOLA

City’s game with Arsenal took place 24 hours before Liverpool’s trip to West Ham as the rest of the nation waited to see what the next twist in this fascinating title race would be,

A Sergio Aguero hat-trick saw off the Gunners and the gap was – for the time being – back down to just two points, but if this was a poker match, it seemed Liverpool were blinking first, as they again dropped points the night after with a 1-1 draw with West Ham.

The gap was down to just one win, with Spurs still well in the hunt just a couple of points behind the Blues.

Liverpool fans were suddenly hoping neighbours Everton could take points off City at Goodison Park, but the Blues scored goals in first and second-half injury time through Aymeric Laporte and Gabriel Jesus to return to the top of the table for the first time in two months.

The Reds saw off Bournemouth 3-0 three days later to resume pole position, and there must have been belief on Merseyside that Chelsea could cause City problems again the day after – but the Blues were ruthless from start to finish in what of the performances of the season as they thrashed Sarri’s men 6-0 with another Aguero treble seeing Pep’s men go top once again – though Liverpool still had one game in hand away to Manchester United.

The intense rivalry between United and Liverpool ensured that the Manchester Reds were never going to make life easy for Klopp’s side and despite losing three players to injury before half-time, United ground out a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford as Liverpool, squandered two more points, though they moved one point clear of City as a result.

February ended with a 1-0 win over West Ham for City with Sergio Aguero’s penalty enough to see off Manuel Pellegrini’s side, while Liverpool returned to form with a 5-0 win over Watford.

There were just 10 games left and Liverpool just had their noses out in front, but the reality of this relentless title race was that neither side could afford to drop any more points, but as pundits and journalists examined each team’s run in, it was Liverpool who were tipped for the ‘less complicated’ run-in. First, however, they would have to negate the return Merseyside derby and a neighbouring Everton side hell-bent on throwing a spanner in the works…

March: Whatever it takes...

We don't think too much about what people say about the quadruple. What Liverpool and Manchester City have done in the Premier League both deserve credit. That's why we are here.
PEP GUARDIOLA

TV scheduling meant that, in the weeks that remained of the 2018/19 campaign, City and Liverpool would rarely start on the same day at the same time. As a result, the Blues kicked off March with a trip to Bournemouth and it was perhaps the first time we saw a slight shift in an already steely mentality by the defending champions.

There was a more cautious approach the game at The Vitality with the knowledge that so much hard work had gone into chipping away at Liverpool’s lead that the pressure had to be kept firmly on the leaders. One poor performance could prove decisive on the run-in, so while Riyad Mahrez’s strike was enough to secure a hard-fought 1-0 win, it was only the three points that mattered, not so much the style in which victory was achieved.

24 hours later, Everton hosted Liverpool at Goodison Park and if this was a game where the Reds feared they might drop points again, their fears would have been well-founded as the Toffees deservedly claimed a damaging 0-0 draw. Liverpool had now dropped eight points from their past six games and City were finally back on top.

The following weekend, the Blues again played first and Raheem Sterling’s 13-minute hat-trick was enough to see off a stubborn Watford 3-1 at the Etihad, while Liverpool saw off Burnley 4-2 at Anfield the following day.

City’s FA Cup involvement meant Liverpool again had chance to regain top spot with a trip to struggling Fulham and only a controversial late penalty saw the Reds secure a narrow 2-1 win at Craven Cottage.

And it was the Fulham that City next headed to at the end of March with a comfortable 2-0 win sending the Blues back to the top of the table, ahead of Liverpool’s game the following day where yet another late winner kept the Merseysiders on track, though City supporters must have watched in dismay as Tottenham conceded a comical own goal on 90 minutes.

So, going into April, Liverpool remained top by two points but had played one game more. There was no margin for error for either side.

April: Who blinks first?

City’s continuing FA Cup progress meant the home clash with Cardiff was brought forward and goals from Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane were enough to put the Blues top again. Liverpool responded with a 3-1 win at Southampton having been behind and still level after 80 minutes and was the third game in a row where things could easily have gone against them – but didn’t.

Next up, both teams would play consecutively on Sunday 14 April. City travelled to Palace who had inflicted a damaging defeat at the Etihad back in December while Liverpool hosted Chelsea. Each set of fans had hope the other would come unstuck and the Blues knew Selhurst Park would be a genuine test, but City came out determined and focused and never allowed the hosts to get going and, bar a late scare, City won 3-1 to again go top of the table. Liverpool responded with a2-0 win over Chelsea to maintain pole position.

There were other factors to consider in the weeks that remained, too. City’s next game was against Tottenham – the side who had just eliminated the Blues from the Champions League during an exhausting second leg at the Etihad. Three games in 11 days against a Spurs team who sat third in the Premier League was a big ask and City had to dig deep to grind out a 1-0 win courtesy of Phil Foden’s header. It felt like a huge three points for the Blues, particularly as Liverpool were away to Cardiff the following day – a game they were expected to win – and did.

Perhaps the key to the title race was whether City could win their game in hand and the fact it was against Manchester United at Old Trafford had Liverpool fans licking their lips that this could be where the destiny swung back in their favour. United, fresh from a 4-0 thrashing at Everton had been heavily criticised by their fans and the media with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer promising there would be a reaction against City, an as the teams went off 0-0 at the break, it had been a far from convincing display by the Blues.

But City re-emerged looking much more their old selves and goals from Bernardo and Leroy Sane midway through the second period gave Pep’s men a priceless 2-0 win. Liverpool ended April with an easy 5-0 win over relegated Huddersfield Town while City had to travel to face freshly-safe from relegation Burnley at Turf Moor. The Clarets were up for the scrap and frustrated the Blues until the 63rd minute when Sergio Aguero’s shot was seemingly scrambled off the line – only for technology to signal the ball had crossed the line by a couple of millimetres. Fine margins indeed.

That was enough for City to win 1-0. Two games remained for Pep’s side – and two wins would guarantee the title.

May: Relentless

Yeah, it’s the toughest league I’ve ever played as a manager, for the quality of the rivals – no doubts. That’s why being there [in contention] is incredible. But of course only one will take the prize and the other one will be at home sad.
Pep Guardiola

Liverpool’s penultimate game of the Premier League season was away to Newcastle United, managed by former Reds’ boss Rafa Benitez. Journalists and pundits pondered if there would be one final twist in this enthralling title race. Could Benitez, adored by Liverpool fans, be the man to end their 29-year wait for the top flight title? For a time, it seemed he might. Newcastle, roared on by a buoyant St James’ Park crowd, exchanged blows with the Reds and with just five minutes left, the score was 2-2 – but when Fabinho won a free-kick on the right of the Magpies’ box, there felt an air of inevitability as Divock Origi glanced home what was sure to be the winning goal.

Had that not gone in, City could have gone into the final home game of the season knowing that, in all likelihood, one win from the last two matches would be enough – instead, it was again win or bust with Liverpool two points clear. And the irony of having former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers in charge of Leicester City again suggested that there would indeed be one final twist in the tale.

The Foxes looked sharp and dangerous, with City surviving a couple of scares before going in at the break with the game goalless. As time went on, so a feeling of desperation began to creep in – it felt as though Leicester would effectively end the Blues’ hopes of back-to-back titles until, with 70 minutes gone, Vincent Kompany received the ball midway inside the Foxes’ half – the skipper nudged the ball forward, teed himself and with the majority of the Etihad screaming ‘don’t shoot’, the Belgian unleashed a swerving drive from 25 yards that rocketed into the top right-hand corner.

The Etihad went crazy. Surely Captain Fantastic wasn’t going to be the hero again – just as he had been so many times during his long City career? In the dying minutes, Leicester broke forward and when the ball fell to former City striker Kelechi Iheanacho, he swept a low shot well wide when he looked odds-on to score. Not long after, the whistle blew for full-time. City were 90 minutes away from being crowned champions once again.

An absorbing title race, where the leadership had changed 32 times during the course of the campaign, was just 90 minutes from its conclusion. It had been like a 38-game penalty shoot-out, with City up last, knowing one more win would seal it.

The Blues had to travel to Brighton on the final day, while Liverpool hosted Wolves. Would there be one more cruel chapter for either side?

When Sadio Mane gave the Reds a 1-0 lead on 17 minutes, Liverpool vaulted above City in the ‘as it stands’ live Premier League table. Ten minutes later and Anfield erupted again – but this time because news of a Brighton goal at the Amex Stadium. Glenn Murray had nodded the Seagulls ahead and now the Blues needed two goals at least to win the game.

This incredible side, who never know when they are beaten, levelled within 83 seconds as Sergio Aguero latched on to David Silva’s back-flick to score his 32nd of another prolific season. Ten minutes after that, Aymeric Laporte powered home Riyad Mahrez’s corner and City were again leading the Premier League (as things stood). It was proving to be a breathless finale and one this fantastic battle between Manchester and Merseyside demanded. But City were not going to let this slip and Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan both scored superb long-range efforts to seal the points after the break and though Liverpool ended with a 2-0 win over Wolves, the Blues’ 4-1 win at Brighton meant Jurgen Klopp’s side had finally run out of games and City were champions.

The Blues had won their last 14 Premier League games in succession and finished with 98 points – just two shy of the 100 total from 2017/18. Liverpool finished on 97 – the highest runner-up total ever and, in any other season prior to 2017, enough to win the title.

However, for all their efforts, it was the sky blue and white ribbons that blew gently in the warm Sussex breeze at the Amex Stadium. City were champions again.

What a title race. The greatest yet? Without doubt…