Man City once stumbled in the greatest title race of all. This time looks different

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a> are unbeaten in 17 league games.</span><span>Composite: AP; PA; Reuters</span>
Manchester City are unbeaten in 17 league games.Composite: AP; PA; Reuters

There are still only two points in it: Manchester City 73, Arsenal 71, Liverpool 71. It’s not over yet. If the three keep pace for the next five games, it will still be the first season since 1971-72 in which three different sides go into their final game of the season with a chance of winning the title. The hope for anybody seeking a dramatic run-in is that this weekend was just the beginning of a final month of twists and turns. But the sense is that the race has taken a decisive shift towards City and a fourth successive title for Pep Guardiola’s team.

It’s not just that City swept Luton aside 5-1. You’d expect that; they beat them 6-2 in the FA Cup in February. Nor was it just the fact that Liverpool lost at home to Crystal Palace, the opponent Jürgen Klopp had beaten more than any other, or that Arsenal lost at home to Aston Villa, managed by their former manager Unai Emery, each detail twisting the knife in a little further. It was the way they lost, coming after the way Arsenal had played in drawing against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and the way Liverpool had played in losing to Atalanta in the Europa League.

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Arsenal were cruising against Bayern when David Raya’s inexplicable charge from his goal put Gabriel under pressure, leading to the equaliser. Although they did, in the end, fight back to level that game, the sense on Sunday was of a side that still hadn’t regained their equilibrium; Arsenal remain an anxious team; dominant when the going is good, but prone to stumble when it is not. Liverpool’s problems are at both ends: 21 times this season they have conceded the first goal in a league game, which will always cause problems if the goals for some reason – lack of precision, loss of confidence, misfortune – dry up, which they have.

This is how teams used to look in the run-in: fraught, frazzled, weary, the muscles tightening as the finish line comes into view. City had that when they won the league in 2011-12, their first championship for 44 years, drawing against Stoke and Sunderland and losing at Arsenal to seemingly give the league away with five games remaining before finally securing it with two injury-time goals against QPR. It’s what used to make run-ins so unpredictable: the most mundane game against the most ordinary opponent could loom as an insurmountable barrier when the potential consequences were so great.

It is part of City’s excellence (the 115 unresolved charges notwithstanding) that winning has become such a habit that they seem not to struggle with the same anxieties: while others wrestle with doubt and fatigue, they just keep swatting opponents aside. But as a club, they have known the anguish of a run-in collapse.

There’ll probably never be a repeat of 1971-72, the greatest of all title races, when four different sides went into their final game with a chance of the title, although those games were spread over 16 days. City, having been five points clear in March (in the days of two points for a win), won only three of their final eight games, something blamed on the signing of Rodney Marsh, whose style many found disruptive. On 22 April, they beat their title rivals Derby, managed by Brian Clough, in their last game. Derby then beat Liverpool in their last game on 1 May, but either Liverpool or Leeds would have the chance to clinch the league in their final games, played on 8 May, two days after Leeds had beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup final. Leeds, though, lost at Wolves, while Liverpool drew at Arsenal, meaning Derby took the title by a point, learning of their triumph as they sat in a hotel lobby on a post-season trip in Mallorca as their assistant manager Peter Taylor listened to updates on the phone at reception.

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The modern City, though, can look at the six games that remain with a degree of confidence: away to Brighton and Nottingham Forest; home to Wolves; away at Fulham and Tottenham; home to West Ham. Any of the away games has the potential to be tricky, but that is not such a daunting run-in as that faced by either of their rivals. Arsenal must still go to Wolves, Tottenham and Manchester United, and have Chelsea, Bournemouth and Everton at home; Liverpool have away games at Fulham, Everton, West Ham and Villa and host Tottenham and Wolves. The biggest complication could be that City are still in the FA Cup final and are more likely than either of the rivals to progress in Europe, but it may be that by the time they face what looks the biggest of their remaining tests, at Spurs in the final week of the season, they have clear water and the pressure is not so great.

City have not been quite so overwhelmingly brilliant this season as they were in the second half of last, and yet they are still 17 games unbeaten in the league and in the last couple of weeks some of the old rhythm has returned. They appear poised to accelerate away from the field. The only hope for those yearning for drama is that if you were scripting the finale to be as intriguing as possible, this is exactly how you’d write it.

This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Have a question for Jonathan? Email, and he’ll answer the best in a future edition