LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Manchester City came out on top in one of English soccer’s most thrilling and high-quality title races, retaining the Premier League trophy for the first time after finishing a point clear of Liverpool on Sunday.
Here’s a look at the key moments in their gripping duel:
Liverpool’s biggest move in the title race possibly came before the season even started.
The signing of Brazil international Alisson for $85 million — at the time the biggest fee for a goalkeeper in soccer history — was the final piece in a squad restructuring that had also seen defender Virgil van Dijk join for $99 million in January and midfielders Fabinho and Naby Keita arrive for approaching a combined total of $150 million.
The defense, which had been the team’s problem, was tightened. The key components of the attack — namely the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah — were still there. Liverpool was ready to start eating into that 25-point deficit to City from the previous season.
City’s big move in the transfer market, meanwhile, was the signing of Riyad Mahrez from Leicester for a club-record $80 million. Unlike Van Dijk and Alisson, the Algeria winger would go on to have only a fleeting impact in the title race.
Liverpool showed it meant business this season by beating West Ham 4-0 on the opening weekend, then winning its next five games. Mane was in a rich vein of scoring form, the defense conceded only two goals in that six-game start, and before long it became clear that Liverpool would be City’s biggest threat to retaining the title.
The tense and tight 0-0 draw at Anfield between the two teams on Oct. 7, when Mahrez missed a late penalty, signaled the respect they had for each other.
City, however, was looking even better than last season even with Kevin De Bruyne, its star player from last season, missing most of it through injury. When the team beat Watford 2-1 on Dec. 4, it had dropped only four points all season — through away draws against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool — and held a five-point lead.
Then came the wobble.
From out of nowhere, City lost three of its next four league games — starting at Chelsea 2-0, before a 3-2 loss at home to Crystal Palace and then a 2-1 defeat at Leicester.
Liverpool, having just squeezed past Everton 1-0 thanks to a freak injury-time winner by Divock Origi , won all of its games over the same December period and held a seven-point lead going into the new year. The Reds had a chance to make it a 10-point gap when they headed to Etihad Stadium on Jan. 3.
“I was nervous before Liverpool,” Guardiola said. “Seven points behind, and we could be 10 points behind. It was, ‘Aah, it will be so difficult.’”
City kept the title race alive by pulling off a 2-1 victory thanks to Leroy Sane’s second-half goal and an amazing clearance off his own goal-line by City defender John Stones. It was Liverpool’s only loss of the league season.
Liverpool then rested players for a 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup in its next game, before drawing four of its next eight games, culminating in a 0-0 stalemate at Merseyside neighbor Everton. Any momentum appeared to have gone.
However, City unexpectedly slipped up again, losing 2-1 at Newcastle in late January to fall four points behind, having played a game more. At that point, Guardiola said to himself his team would have to win all of its remaining games to win the title.
Given City’s form at the time, it looked a tall order.
CITY BOUNCES BACK
City didn’t lose again, except in the Champions League when it was eliminated in agonizing circumstances by Tottenham at the quarterfinal stage in mid-April.
Still, even after that demoralizing setback, Guardiola’s team rebounded with a gritty 1-0 win over Tottenham and a 2-0 win at Manchester United inside the next seven days. Then came a 1-0 win at Burnley through Sergio Aguero’s goal that needed the say-so of goal-line technology, before Vincent Kompany’s wonder strike sealed another 1-0 victory, this time at home to Leicester.
City, which seemed to play after Liverpool on most weekends in the run-in, was churning out narrow wins and all the Reds could do was keep the pressure on the champions by winning the games and hope for a slip-up.
With Origi scoring a late goal to earn Liverpool a 3-2 win at Newcastle on the next-to-last weekend, the title race was guaranteed to go to the final weekend for the first time in five years.
A win at Brighton would guarantee City the title, but there looked to be a shock in store when Guardiola’s side went 1-0 down after 27 minutes. By that stage, Liverpool was leading.
However, City equalized after barely a minute through Sergio Aguero, went in front through Aymeric Laporte and ended up winning 4-1 to finish the season with a 14th straight victory.
Liverpool’s 2-0 win against Wolverhampton Wanderers was in vain.
“It’s the toughest title we have won in all my career,” said Guardiola, “by far.”