This is by no means the first close title race of the Premier League era. Blackburn set an early benchmark when they pipped Manchester United by a solitary point in 1995, and Arsenal, United – twice – and Chelsea have all done the same since, while nothing has yet matched the drama of Sergio Aguero’s stoppage-time goal on the final day of the 2011-12 season whisking the trophy into the clutches of Manchester City.
There have been other title races that were great for other reasons. For sheer narrative arc, Newcastle streaking to a 12-point lead that Eric Cantona and United clawed back as Kevin Keegan descended into wild-eyed, finger-jabbing paranoia is difficult to top, although Leicester’s motley crew defying pre-season odds of 5000-1 to become English champions for the first time in 2016 was also a campaign to savour.
And there have been other Premier League titles races that were won by truly exceptional teams. Arsenal’s unbeaten Invincibles of 2004 achieved what no other English team had before or has since; Chelsea left rivals in their wake the following year under the newly-installed Jose Mourinho; Sir Alex Ferguson’s United repeatedly finished top by double-digit margins; City ripped up the record book last year.
But what separates this season from those before it is the utter relentlessness with which both City and Liverpool are pursuing the title. Like two heavyweights approaching the 12th round, they continue to trade blow after blow. Wednesday’s win over United means City have won 15 of 16 top-flight games since Boxing Day. Liverpool, meanwhile, have lost only once in the league this term – 2-1 to City.
The reason for this relentlessness is the quality of the two teams. With three rounds of fixtures remaining, both City – ahead by one point – and Liverpool have already amassed enough points to have topped the table in six of the last 11 Premier League seasons. If both win their remaining games, as seems likely, their totals will beat any previous winner’s total – bar City’s extraordinary 100-point haul last year.
City and Liverpool simply drop very few points. While it is not unheard of for the eventual champions to gain an air of impenetrability, never before have we seen two teams do so and maintain that standard as the finishing line hoves into view. The lead may have changed hands 28 times this season, but that is in large part due to one team playing before the other most weekends.
These two are head and shoulders above the rest, as the annual awards handed out by players’ union the PFA confirm. City boasted three and Liverpool two of the six players on the shortlist for Player of the Year, which is set to go to Reds defender Virgil van Dijk; City’s Raheem Sterling is tipped to land the Young Player gong; and the title rivals contributed 10 of the 11 names in the PFA’s Team of the Year.
This supremacy is no accident, but the fruition of both clubs’ clear visions and well implemented strategies. It is also down to the work of two of the best managers of their generation, in Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, and vast sums invested in the transfer market. The latter measure is no guarantee of success, however, as United in particular have found in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
If there is one ingredient missing from this title race then it is a simmering enmity that characterised the rivalries between Ferguson’s United, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Guardiola is impossibly agitated and Klopp forever straddling a thin line between ecstasy and fury, yet neither has snapped at his opposite number – indeed, they appear to like each other.
Perhaps it is their ability to rise above the verbal sparring that characterised previous title battles which has upheld their teams’ incredible focus and consistency. Either way, this relentless, epic tussle has strong claims to being the best of the Premier League era. Enjoy it while it lasts.