Before the dramatic events of this week unfolded, most observers, whether impartial or otherwise, would have agreed that the Premier League title race was likely a foregone conclusion.
But we now live in a post-Vincent Kompany 30-yard screamer, post-Champions League semi-final comeback mayhem world which has made a mockery of such assumptions. Anything is possible – just ask Kompany, Divock Origi, Georginio Wijnaldum or Lucas Moura.
It’s in this fresh context which Manchester City and Liverpool prepare for their 38th and final league games of the season on Sunday.
The scenario is simple enough. Leaders City travel to Brighton knowing a win – which would be their 14thin succession – would see them retain their title regardless of what Liverpool do against Wolves at Anfield.
That’s because in this race, which has turned the hare and tortoise fable upside down to pit two fighting-fit, race-hardened hares against each other, Pep Guardiola’s side hold a crucial one-point lead.
Just as in another miraculous footballing event of the near past – Leicester’s title victory of 2016 – the bookmakers’ odds are a useful barometer when sizing up the ridiculous. The Foxes’ chances were famously valued at 5,000/1, so would it really be so ludicrous if Liverpool’s 7/1 hopes were to triumph over City’s 2/17 shot?
After all, as Guardiola himself noted following City’s Kompany-inspired 1-0 win over Leicester on Monday, all the expectation is on the leaders.
“Liverpool are playing without pressure because it’s not in their hands. We have the pressure because it’s in our hands,” he said.
“Brighton will be tough. They went to Arsenal and got a result [last Sunday’s 1-1 draw]. We played them in the FA Cup and that was tough because they are strong, have the set-pieces, and I know they’re playing for pride.”
Fortunately for City, pride is all 17th-placed Brighton are playing for, having already ensured Premier League survival thanks to Cardiff’s relegation. While there is motivation to finish the season on a high, Chris Hughton’s team will not be driven by the desire to protect their livelihoods.
Still, Premier League officials are taking no chances, sending trophies and sets of medals to both the Amex Stadium and Anfield to make sure each eventuality is covered come 5pm on Sunday.
One last push
After the high of Tuesday’s 4-0 drubbing of Barcelona, how Liverpool would love to etch their very own version of Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp title-winning strike against Queens Park Rangers in 2012 into their history.
Jurgen Klopp’s motivational skills have always been considered a strong suit, but they are now absolutely irrefutable. Having fought all season to stay at the summit he surely won’t have any problems getting the best from his team one last time.
Although Wolves are on a three-match winning streak and sit 10 places higher than Brighton, they are in a similar position, having already sealed seventh place and a best league finish since 1980 with a game to spare.
They will provide a stern, but far from insurmountable final test. And as left-back Andy Robertson said on Tuesday, the high of thrashing Barca will forever stand as a precedent of what is possible.
“Fingers crossed,” Robertson said. “We go to Sunday full of energy. It’s out of our hands but we’ve seen stranger things happen, especially tonight.”
Liverpool’s progress to a second successive Champions League final did have its casualties, however.
Robertson, Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mane and Fabinho all picked up knocks of varying degrees, making them doubts for this weekend.
Although top-scorer Mohamed Salah will return after being passed fit following a head injury sustained in last weekend’s 3-2 win over Newcastle, Roberto Firmino and Naby Keita remain out, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may not be risked while he reaches the end of a long road back from injury.
But after stand-in striker Origi and substitute Wijnaldum provided the goals in midweek, Liverpool must be confident their squad is up to the challenge in front of them. All they can do is win and hope another instance of the improbable becomes reality.
The fact we’ve reached the last game of the season with two contenders is testament to the consistency of both City and Liverpool.
The gulf between them and the rest may be huge – 23 points separate Klopp’s side in second and Chelsea in third – but two-horse races have been in short supply in recent seasons.
Not since Brendan Rodgers’ own freewheeling Liverpool side slipped at the last in 2013-14 has there been a contest like it, with City, Leicester and Chelsea on two occasions finishing with daylight between them and the rest in the interim.
With the sky blue juggernaut showing no signs of faltering, another “Aguero 90+4” moment appears unlikely for either side. But, as this week has shown, the beauty of football is that you just never know.