Title race is not over due to Liverpool and Arsenal losing. It just feels like it

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Ollie Watkins;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Ollie Watkins</a> holds off Emile Smith Rowe to score <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Aston Villa;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Aston Villa</a>’s second goal at the Emirates Stadium.</span><span>Photograph: David Klein/Reuters</span>

At the final whistle the Emirates ­Stadium was already half empty, the home crowd streaming out into the Sunday gloom.

Mikel Arteta could be seen striding across the turf to applaud the empty pink-red seats, or at least those who had remained in theirs right to the end of an afternoon that had kicked off to raucous club anthems, tongues of fire on the touchline, choreographed victory-vibes.

At the far end the Aston Villa players hugged and cheered and waved at a wildly exuberant away end, a wonderful moment in their own season. Their 2-0 victory here will go a long way towards ensuring the club gets to travel among the European elite next season. Otherwise, as the light faded to cold spring pewter above the lip of the stand, there was a sense of day having turned a decisive shade of sky blue.

This is not the end of the Premier League’s breathlessly trailed three-way title race. This is not the beginning of the end of the Premier League’s breathlessly trailed three-way title race. Except, let’s face it, it probably is both of these things. We have, after all, seen this movie before.

Related: Arsenal stunned by Aston Villa as Bailey and Watkins hurt title ambitions

It is hard to imagine a more satisfying weekend for Manchester City, which kicked off on Saturday with a 5-1 win over Luton, scoring at will, key players unextended, and three days to rest before Real Madrid at home.

Click forward to Sunday and Liverpool and Arsenal both lost at home, two hours apart, and did so painfully. In the early kick-off Ebereche Eze scored the only goal of the game at Anfield, a beautifully worked combination with only 14 minutes gone. After which Liverpool had 427 shots at the Crystal Palace goal but somehow never really seemed likely to score. At the Emirates Arsenal began brightly but were simply reeled in by a muscular and well-grooved Aston Villa, who, rather than hanging on, came close to dominating the last 20 minutes.

At the end of which Manchester City are only two points clear at the top. But they’re also – and this can’t be emphasised enough – two vast and daunting points clear at the top, with a sense of a team heading toward a kind of ultimacy, 12 games away now from an unheard-of double-treble, without ever having run away from the field this season or found their own higher gears up to this point.

There is a great deal to be said in any field for simply not going away, for letting the other person blink. This has been the nature of City’s title chase this time around, an act of will as much as fluency or patterns of play. Fearlessness. Sticking to the process. A kind of mechanised all-court pursuit, levels never dropping. It is very hard to see this being the point, of all the points that have gone before now, where they start to look down.

Here Arsenal started well and could have taken the lead in the opening hour. They just seemed to seize up after half-time, Villa producing the kind of performance that pulls at the seams and picks at the nerves, bringing your failings a little cruelly into view.

The opening goal arrived on 84 minutes, but it had been coming for half an hour. It was an odd goal, a moment where Arsenal’s previously excellent defence simply cracked.

John McGinn had a fine game at the base of the Villa midfield. He played a pass out to the left to Lucas Digne. Kai Havertz was present but not involved, allowing Digne to whip in a low cross that travelled through the Arsenal six yard box past both William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães, surprising Declan Rice behind them, then reached Leon Bailey, who was able to spank it into the goal, with David Raya also wrong-footed. An unremarkable pass had taken five Arsenal players out of the game.

Two minutes later it was 2-0, this time brilliantly finished by Ollie Watkins, released again by a single straight through pass. Watkins hared away, delayed just enough then chipped the ball, via a deflection, outside Raya’s reach and into the far corner.

This had always looked like arguably Arsenal’s hardest remaining game in the league, not so much in terms of form, but because of Unai Emery’s willingness to tailor his team to their opponents, to learn from the tactics Champions League opponents have employed to disrupt the Arsenal train. Sit deeper. Play on the break. Don’t be surprised by the stuff at corners.

Arsenal will of course be accused of bottling it here or shrinking in the moment. But there was no lack of effort, just a lack of edge perhaps, the nastiness, the luck, the knowhow, the sense of inevitability that champions have.

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Ødegaard was excellent in the first half, making tackles, dribbling, playing through passes, always pulling the strings. But what was on the end of his string? Kai Havertz having one of his vaguer afternoons, drifting about like a ferry waiting to dock. Gabriel Jesus was a familiar combination of super slick razor sharp feet and all the finishing precision of a croquet mallet.

None of this matters when the team functions as it can. But those connections were lost here. Six games remain now, with plenty of time for that picture to change. This is not the end. It just felt like it.