Pep Guardiola marched through a guard of honor wearing a Manchester City T-shirt before pumping his fists in the air and turning to take in the admiration of an ecstatic Etihad Stadium.
He beamed widely as he celebrated his fourth title in five seasons, but this barely told the story of what Manchester City’s manager, players and fans had done to themselves to achieve their goal.
Less than an hour earlier, Guardiola had burst into tears at the final whistle after one of the most incredible comebacks a club has ever made to win the Premier League.
The former boss of Barcelona and Bayern Munich shed tears of joy. For much of this nerve-racking, spectacular afternoon, it seemed like tears of despair.
Manchester City were given a simple task to keep their crown. They had to beat Aston Villa – another home win in an excellent league season.
There was one serious problem when scripting this potential storyline.
Manchester City don’t do a routine. Straightforward is a stranger to them. Give them a mile and very often they will take an inch. History should have told us that this wouldn’t be as simple as logic suggested.
And it showed when City, listless and uninspired, was 2-0 behind Villa with 15 minutes to go.
Thirty-five miles away at Anfield, Liverpool were playing 1-1 with Wolves so all was not lost – but the smart money was on the Reds who scored again for the Kop and won, which they eventually did.
Guardiola’s frenzied body language on the sidelines underlined the magnitude of the task ahead. City had to score three goals in those last 15 minutes or the season would end without a trophy – an undeniable failure for a team and manager of such talents.
The twists and turns in the story were obvious.
Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard helped Liverpool win the one major trophy he couldn’t win himself at Anfield, his own title tales of woe epitomized by his infamous slip against Chelsea in April 2014, which saw Manchester City snatch the title at the last minute to work. gasp.
The fact that another old Liverpool boy, Philippe Coutinho, had scored the goal that looked like it could finish City’s title ambitions only added to the drama.
And then it happened. A comeback and title win that was exciting and unlikely even by Manchester City’s standards.
The club recently unveiled a statue to Sergio Aguerothe striker who scored the famous goal of the last day against Queens Park Rangers at 93 minutes and 20 seconds, scoring their first title in 44 years on goal difference at Manchester United ten years ago.
Sunday’s victory, many will argue, was even more challenging to complete than that day in May 2012, as they faced a superior, well-organized and dangerous Villa, who appeared to be in complete control.
Etihad Stadium was stunned. This was supposed to be a holiday, more than enough compensation for losing a Champions League semi-final they had their grip on against Real Madrid.
Not a little.
There was an eerie silence moments after Coutinho struck. City feared the worst but somehow managed to evoke the character and quality to win a title in conditions that were dramatic even by their own standards.
The pain of losing their crown would have been even more acute, as they held a 14-point lead over Liverpool on January 15, only to be stalked to the centimeter by Jurgen Klopp.
What City had put away was knowledge of how they beat Manchester United on the final day of the 2011/12 season, won their last home game to finish above Liverpool in 2013-14 and beat Brighton to beat Liverpool by a point in 2018 -19.
They have been hardened in the unique pressures of the last day of the Premier League.
In fact, it seemed as if muscle memory dragged them off their feet for the five-minute period that netted those three decisive goals and will be forever remembered by every City fan who witnessed it.
Guardiola has made many substitutions in his illustrious career, but he will remember few with more pleasure than the introduction of Ilkay Gundogan in the second half.
First, the German lifted the gloom after 76 minutes with a header from the far post. Rodri raised the expectation with an equalizer two minutes later and there was almost a sense of inevitability about Gundogan’s winner, who with nine minutes left shoved home on the far post of Kevin de Bruyne’s cross.
Guardiola must have known deep down that only a win here would suffice. He begged City’s fans to take to the streets to welcome the team, which they did, and he hammered his message through program notes that ended with the words, “Don’t forget. LOUD. LOUD. LOUD.”
And it was loud, loud, loud as referee Michael Oliver sounded the final whistle to unleash a rush of emotion and relief, especially from City’s manager.
Not all the emotions circulating around the Etihad were to be applauded. Sadly, in what appears to be an increasingly dangerous trend, Villa keeper Robin Olsen was attacked in a field invasion after the final whistle, City quickly apologize and start an investigation†
As the sounds of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” echoed across the floor, City bid farewell to 37-year-old Fernandinho after nine successful years at the club. sprayed with champagne.
Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Zinchenko, an excellent substitute here and a man who has had so much to do with the Russians’ invasion of his homeland, was also overcome with emotion during the triumph and was comforted by colleagues.
Manchester City have conjured up some incredible Premier League finals, often stretching credibility to the breaking point, and this may have just topped it all.
Guardiola’s side are deservedly champions once again – but this simple expression won’t even touch the sides as history recalls the tale of five remarkable minutes on an astonishing day at the Etihad Stadium.