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10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Brighton, Palace are teams to watch

The shift in Crystal Palace’s identity under Patrick Vieira is turning the Eagles into one of the most watchable teams in the Premier League.

Though it may take some time to see the best of Eberechi Eze as he returns from an Achilles injury, the prospect of the graceful attacker lining up alongside Conor Gallagher and Michael Olise for the remainder of the season is truly exciting. This is no longer a defensive team overly reliant on Wilfried Zaha, who’s currently with Cote d’Ivoire at the Africa Cup of Nations. It’s a slick and well-coached collective capable of intricate, attractive football.

But Palace weren’t at their best in Friday’s 1-1 draw on the south coast as they tried to keep a superior Brighton & Hove Albion side at bay.

Bryn Lennon / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Graham Potter is destined for a much bigger job as he continues to fine-tune Brighton with comparatively meager resources. Full-backs Marc Cucurella and Tariq Lamptey – the latter entered as a substitute against Palace – are arguably the most electrifying players in Potter’s side, but the development of Alexis Mac Allister and Leandro Trossard is proof of further improvement for the Seagulls.

With a more reliable striker, there’s no reason Brighton can’t soon be outsiders to sneak into a Europa League place.

Brighton and Crystal Palace don’t have the big-name appeal of some Premier League teams, but they’re the closest things the division has to guaranteed entertainment.

Premier League postponements are farcical

Tottenham Hotspur are understandably aggrieved by the Premier League granting Arsenal’s request to postpone the north London derby.

England’s top flight has fallen afoul of its own postponement guidelines; in addition to COVID-19 cases and injuries, the league considered the number of Arsenal players at the Africa Cup of Nations before deciding to call off Sunday’s game.

If clubs aren’t prepared for players to miss matches on international duty, that’s down to their poor organization. Everyone knew this tournament was coming. Some of Arsenal’s issues were self-inflicted. Did they need to let Ainsley Maitland-Niles join Roma on loan last week, thereby denying themselves a player who can be deployed at full-back and in midfield?

Giuseppe Bellini / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Premier League matches should only be postponed if squads are down to 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper because of positive COVID-19 tests and injuries. Nothing else should affect that decision. Premier League clubs have Under-23 and B teams. They should use them.

While fans can speculate about the necessity of Arsenal’s postponement and others, the fault lies firmly with the Premier League. Its postponement rules had little initial clarity, giving clubs an opportunity to take advantage.

No one can stop Manchester City

That’s it, then. Manchester City are Premier League champions for the fourth time in five seasons – because they must be. Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool have demonstrated the consistency to keep up with City, who are now 11 points clear after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Chelsea.

Thomas Tuchel’s side retreated into its shell at the Etihad Stadium, handing City the ball when it needed to show ambition to revive its title bid. Make no mistake: Chelsea absolutely needed to win here. Instead, Kevin De Bruyne’s kill shot ended any hope for a dramatic conclusion to the campaign.

Pep Guardiola won’t buy any of this, by the way. He doesn’t want his players to believe they’ve already won. Fair enough. But they’ll have to seriously implode for any other team to hoist the trophy in May.

City haven’t lost in the league since October. In that span, they’ve navigated a significant COVID-19 outbreak, injuries to key players, and numerous cancellations. If they were to slip up, they would have done so by now.

Chelsea attackers out of sync

“Our offensive players need to show up more. We need consistency. Chelsea is not a place to hide,” Tuchel said after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Manchester City.

The defeat saw the Blues fall 13 points behind the domineering league leaders – almost certainly an insurmountable deficit – and highlighted Chelsea’s struggles to create and finish chances consistently.

Romelu Lukaku’s £97.5-million re-signing was heralded as the solution to that problem ahead of the campaign. But myriad factors have conspired to spoil his return, not the least of which was an explosive interview in which the Belgian voiced his displeasure with how his season has unfolded thus far.

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Lukaku, who squandered two excellent chances Saturday, has just five league goals this season.

Not for the first time this year, he looked out of sync with his attacking teammates. That wasn’t entirely his fault, though. Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech, who played behind the lone striker in a supporting role at the Etihad, didn’t fare much better; the American wasn’t proactive enough on the ball, while the mercurial Moroccan’s final passes let Lukaku down too often. One instance – when a hilariously overhit through ball for Lukaku scuppered a very promising chance – had Tuchel seething on the touchline.

Chelsea have amassed 39.2 expected goals in the league this season, lagging well behind City and Liverpool. The Blues have spent far too much money on attacking talent to be so toothless relative to their title rivals, and whether or not the solution involves Lukaku, Tuchel needs to find it.

Coutinho provides spark for Villa

Philippe Coutinho only needed 14 minutes to make an enormous impact on his Aston Villa debut, providing an assist and scoring the equalizer in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United.

The Brazilian’s introduction in the second half changed the complexion of the match and provided a glimpse of what Steven Gerrard’s team could look like once Coutinho settles in.

His time with Barcelona was, frankly, a disaster. His was an unnatural tactical fit at the Camp Nou – not all his fault – and his spell is remembered more for the damage he did against Barcelona while on loan at Bayern Munich than for anything he accomplished with the Blaugrana.

Clive Mason / Getty Images Sport / Getty

“There have been many ups and downs. It is in the past,” Coutinho said after his Villa debut. “I’m here, and I’m focused on the objectives of the club and the manager, and I want to do a good job to help my teammates and the club.”

It’s easy to forget after his unfortunate Barca tenure, but Coutinho remains an extremely talented footballer. In the right situation with a club that actually wants him, he could thrive.

If Gerrard can consistently field Coutinho and Emi Buendia in support of Ollie Watkins, the little Brazilian will flourish again – and Villa will follow suit.

Matic’s struggles are no secret

Fred was chosen as the more expressive half of the midfield duo in Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and some of the success of Ralf Rangnick’s approach was evident when the Brazilian assisted on Bruno Fernandes’ second goal against Aston Villa.

But by then, the cracks had started to appear.

Given Scott McTominay’s suspension and United’s scatterbrained approach to recruitment in recent years, there was no alternative to the stiff-limbed Nemanja Matic as Fred’s partner in the middle. Matic, 33, initially offered balance to Rangnick’s side, but he gradually faded after receiving a yellow card for a cynical challenge in the 31st minute.

Ash Donelon / Manchester United / Getty

He only attempted two tackles thereafter – one on Buendia, the other on Jacob Ramsey – and was easily bypassed each time. He also misplaced nearly one-fifth of his passes when he was meant to keep United ticking behind Fred. The threat of a second yellow card troubled Matic; he became twitchy and overly cautious.

Vast spaces opened up as Matic withdrew into anonymity, and Buendia, Ramsey, and Coutinho took full advantage as Villa quickly turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 draw. There were issues elsewhere in United’s lineup by that point – right-back Diogo Dalot’s resistance to Lucas Digne’s runs had crumbled – but Matic’s struggles were the most obvious.

It’s not Matic’s fault his mobility has deserted him in recent years. But it’s also no secret, and United should have replaced him long before this campaign kicked off.

Benitez leaves a mess at Everton

From the outset, Everton fans suspected the worst from Rafa Benitez, whose ties to crosstown rivals Liverpool made him out to be a double agent. Six months later, the Merseysiders are at serious risk of relegation and have been torn apart by Benitez’s hard-line approach. Everton lost a talented left-back in Digne – as well as their head of recruitment and director of football – because of disagreements with Benitez.

His sorry reign lasted just 200 days and ended with Saturday’s embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Norwich City that dropped the club to 16th place in the Premier League. The Toffees were trending in the wrong direction for months, but losing to the league’s worst outfit – a team that had lost each of its last six games and failed to score in any of them – was inexplicable.

So, what will happen next? Everton have too much at stake to even countenance the thought of relegation. They have a new stadium lined up with a hefty bill to pay and numerous players on big wages. But who can they hire to replace Benitez? Wayne Rooney, who’s currently coaching Championship side Derby County, is the bookies’ favorite to take over.

This will end well.

Newcastle still look like relegation fodder

Eddie Howe hasn’t changed much since taking the reins at Newcastle United. With one win in 10 league matches, just eight goals scored, and 19 conceded, the Magpies have shown no indication they can reverse the scoring issues and defensive vulnerabilities that first appeared under Steve Bruce.

Newcastle were closing in on a much-needed 1-0 victory over Watford on Saturday when Joao Pedro found a seam and headed home from close range. Even before allowing the late equalizer, Howe’s side was far from convincing, relying on Allan Saint-Maximin’s individual brilliance just to go ahead. Only one of Newcastle’s 12 shots hit the target, and £25-million signing Chris Wood didn’t lead the line with much authority.

Stu Forster / Getty Images Sport / Getty

“We’ve damaged ourselves,” Howe said afterward. “There’s a psychological failing that we can’t hold on to a lead. The longer the game went on, the more anxious and desperate we got. There are mental scars.”

It was a sobering admission from a man who appears to be coming to grips with the scale of his task.

Ward-Prowse has no equal

There’s no debating it anymore: James Ward-Prowse is the best free-kick taker in the game right now.

The Southampton captain provided yet another example of his set-piece prowess on Saturday, uncorking a majestic strike against Wolverhampton Wanderers that defied physics:

Ward-Prowse has scored eight direct free-kicks since the start of the 2019-20 Premier League season. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a celebrated dead-ball practitioner in his own right, ranks second over that span. He’s only scored three.

The Saints midfielder can find the net in a variety of ways, showing a mastery of the free-kick art that nobody can rival.

Leeds aren’t gone just yet

Sunday’s hard-fought 3-2 win against West Ham United was undoubtedly Leeds United’s biggest of the season. They hadn’t beaten an opponent in the top half of the table all season; all they had were victories over Watford, Crystal Palace, and Burnley.

So, Leeds should take a lot of encouragement from their performance in east London. In ending West Ham’s four-match winning streak – which included a victory over Leeds in the FA Cup – Marcelo Bielsa’s outfit produced a ton of chances, three of which Jack Harrison converted for a famous hat-trick. Leeds pressed well and combined with authority on the counterattack. Frankly, they should have scored more.

The win was all the more remarkable given Leeds’ injury crisis. Bielsa named 15-year-old Archie Gray on the bench just to fill in the numbers, and the treatment room became a little more crowded when starters Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo limped off midway through the first half. Crucially, midfield lynchpin Kalvin Phillips and top scorer Patrick Bamford remain out with long-term injuries.

But the West Yorkshire side still has life.

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Premier League

Premier League exit survey: The good, bad, and ugly this season

The final whistle has been blown, the final goal scored, and the trophy hoisted after a captivating campaign that saw Manchester City stave off Liverpool in dramatic circumstances. theScore looks back on it all, breaking down the best – and worst – the Premier League had to offer over the past season.

What’s your biggest takeaway from the 2021-22 season?

Michael Regan / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Anthony Lopopolo: Midseason hirings yield mixed results. Despite claims to the contrary, clubs don’t always see an uptick in form when they swap managers. Norwich City and Watford couldn’t escape relegation despite changing coaches in November and January, respectively. Burnley waited until mid-April to fire longtime manager Sean Dyche and suffered the same fate. Aston Villa, Everton, and Leeds United did enough to avoid the drop, but none of them played much better under new managers.

Gianluca Nesci: We’re witnessing football’s great new rivalry. Manchester City and Liverpool are, by some margin, the two most dynamic teams in both England and Europe. Watching them go blow-for-blow each week is engrossing, and their direct matchups are essential viewing. There’s clearly respect between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp but also some bubbling animosity that can only be born when a competitor pushes you to the absolute limit. Long may it last.

Daniel Rouse: January signings can work. The midseason market is usually rife with panic purchases that fluster rather than fortify squads, but this season was different. Eddie Howe resisted the urge to rush a revolution at Newcastle United; sensible buys such as Dan Burn, Bruno Guimaraes, and (briefly) Kieran Trippier were all key in pulling the Magpies toward midtable. Christian Eriksen, Luis Diaz, and Dejan Kulusevski also hit the ground running at their respective clubs.

What was your favorite moment or storyline?

Rob Newell – CameraSport / CameraSport / Getty

Lopopolo: Andriy Yarmolenko’s winner. The Ukrainian international missed four games in February and March as he digested the news about Russia’s invasion of his homeland. West Ham United granted Yarmolenko compassionate leave, and he received a standing ovation when he returned and later scored in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa. In tears, the 32-year-old dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky, reflecting on all the terror his relatives faced in Ukraine and his own difficulties. The goal was his first in the Premier League since July 2020.

Nesci: Eriksen’s emotional return. Football, so often a tribal and divisive sport, can, on occasion, bring people together to celebrate something objectively uplifting. Few moments were as unifying as seeing the Danish midfielder resume his career in late February, 259 days after his harrowing collapse at Euro 2020. He was greeted by thunderous applause from the crowd and opposing players, and he went on to become an integral member of Brentford’s squad. “I’m one happy man,” Eriksen said after his first appearance for the club. Same, Christian. Same.

Rouse: David Moyes’ resurgence. The Scot was that close. Another poor tenure and he would be filed alongside Tony Pulis, Alan Pardew, and the other uninspiring British bosses who lived on the managerial carousel. But then Moyes slowly changed the mood at the London Stadium with wise investments from the EFL and Eastern Europe. He’s forged a squad that was two points from pipping United to sixth place and also reached the Europa League semifinals. Good for you, Moyes.

What about your biggest disappointment?

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Lopopolo: Romelu Lukaku. Chelsea spent £97.5 million to bring Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge last summer. All they have to show for it is a hefty bill. Lukaku made headlines for all the wrong reasons when he openly questioned manager Thomas Tuchel’s tactics in an unauthorized interview with Italian TV in February. In the end, he scored just eight goals in 16 starts in the Premier League.

Nesci: Fan violence. A spate of late-season pitch invasions heightened the issue, but incidents involving supporters have seemingly been on the rise since stadiums were opened to patrons following the COVID-19 lockdown. “As a coach, manager, player, or staff, we want to be safe in our workplace,” Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira said after his own altercation with a fan at Goodison Park. He’s right, of course. Nobody should feel unsafe doing their job. This isn’t unique to England – Ligue 1, in particular, has been marred by problems in the stands of late – but it’s undeniably something the FA needs to devote time and resources to eradicating.

Rouse: Norwich. In 12 months from now, will we all be greatly underwhelmed by the news that, once again, the Canaries have flown back into the Premier League? This latest attempt to stay in the top flight was pitiful as Norwich scored 23 times while conceding three or more goals in 16 of their games.

Who was this season’s MVP?

OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty

Lopopolo: Heung-Min Son. Not even Antonio Conte can explain why Son is so good with both of his feet. The South Korean scored 12 goals with his left foot and 11 with his right to finish as the Premier League’s joint-top scorer alongside Mohamed Salah. He starred for Tottenham Hotspur down the stretch, scoring 12 times in his final 10 league appearances to help Spurs finish above Arsenal in the fourth and final Champions League spot.

Nesci: Kevin De Bruyne. The best, most influential player on the best team in the Premier League. Chalk, yes, but it’s impossible to overstate how vital the Belgian wizard is to Manchester City. Quite simply: Guardiola’s team wouldn’t have held off Liverpool for the crown without De Bruyne orchestrating operations. It was fitting that he set up the title-clinching goal in Sunday’s manic finale.

Rouse: Mohamed Salah. Granted, the Egyptian attacker had a slight dip in productivity after the Africa Cup of Nations, but he was easily the best player on the planet over the opening half of the Premier League campaign. He scored 16 goals and assisted nine times over his first 20 appearances.

Best signing of the season?

Steven Paston – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Lopopolo: Eriksen. The 30-year-old made an astonishing return to competitive top-flight football in February, turning out for Brentford eight months after suffering cardiac arrest at Euro 2020. But he ended up doing more for Brentford than they could’ve ever imagined. Joining on a free transfer after terminating his contract with Inter Milan, Eriksen led the Bees out of a midseason funk and on to a winning run that culminated in a 4-1 victory at Chelsea. The playmaker finished the season with one goal and four assists in 11 appearances, and Brentford staved off relegation.

Nesci: Luis Diaz. It’s exceedingly rare that a January addition turns out to be the most prominent of all, but Diaz fit seamlessly into Klopp’s team upon his arrival from Porto for an initial £37.5 million. He added an extra spark whenever the Reds labored and helped take some of the creative and scoring burdens off his new teammates. Guimaraes and Jose Sa deserve consideration here too, but Diaz was the standout signing.

Rouse: Marc Cucurella. The £15.4-million fee that Brighton & Hove Albion paid to acquire the wild-haired wing-back proved to be one of the bargains of last summer. His boundless energy and quality in both defensive and attacking situations has led to links to a move to Manchester City.

Worst signing of the season?

Chris Brunskill/Fantasista / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Lopopolo: Jadon Sancho. Manchester United dropped £73 million on the 22-year-old with the expectation he’d form a formidable front line with Marcus Rashford, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Bruno Fernandes. Apart from scoring a consolation goal in United’s 4-1 loss to Manchester City, Sancho achieved little in his first season back in England. Anthony Elanga, a homegrown talent who shares duties on the left wing, has shown more promise than his high-priced teammate.

Nesci: Bryan Gil. Remember him? Tottenham reportedly paid €25 million – and parted with Erik Lamela – to secure the services of the Spanish winger from Sevilla. He made nine league appearances, totaling just 94 minutes, didn’t score a goal, and attempted only one shot before being sent back to La Liga on loan. Spurs then promptly signed Kulusevski in January, a superior winger who effectively renders Gil useless.

Rouse: Dele Alli. The 26-year-old was famously branded “a f—— lazy guy in training” by Jose Mourinho in Amazon’s “All Or Nothing” docuseries on Spurs’ 2019-20 season. He’s not the kind of player you want for a relegation battle, which explains his zero starts until Everton secured safety, and there’s been little indication over the past four seasons that he’s worth the £40 million he’ll cost the Toffees if he hits all of his appearance targets.

Which ‘outsider’ is likeliest to crack the top six next year?

Naomi Baker / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Lopopolo: Brighton. Graham Potter is building a credible project in the south coast of England. He led the Seagulls to ninth place in 2021-22 – their highest-ever finish in the Premier League – and helped them post impressive victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester United late in the season. Leandro Trossard scored a single-season career-high eight goals, and even Danny Welbeck found the net with greater regularity. A few more targeted signings could push Brighton into Europe.

Nesci: West Ham. Were it not for Conor Gallagher’s impending return to Chelsea, Crystal Palace would have been the selection here – Vieira’s team, despite finishing 12th in the table, produced the sixth-best expected goal difference in the league this season. But West Ham, having come so close to pipping Manchester United to a Europa League place, already have the foundation in place to go one better in ’22-23. Keeping hold of Declan Rice will be essential if the Hammers are going to make that leap.

Rouse: Leicester City. The Foxes had a wretched time with injuries. Wesley Fofana was missed most of all during his prolonged spell on the sidelines, James Justin and Wilfred Ndidi dealt with lengthy absences, and Jamie Vardy raced to 15 Premier League goals despite missing 13 games. If his most important players can stay fit, Brendan Rodgers can guide his team into Europe once more.

Are you going to miss any of the relegated sides?

DANIEL LEAL / AFP / Getty

Lopopolo: No. Burnley’s expiration date had long passed, Watford couldn’t win at home, and Norwich City were as good as done in December.

Nesci: Negative. Having correctly predicted the three clubs to be relegated prior to the campaign, I’ve been ready to wave goodbye to them for quite some time. As an aside, please don’t look at any of my other preseason predictions. They were all good and correct, honest.

Rouse: Nope. Leeds United are a huge club blessed with a passionate fan base, and they’ve largely played entertaining football since they belatedly returned to the top flight in 2020. They survived, so all was good with the world.

Which club intrigues you most going into the transfer window?

Alex Livesey – Danehouse / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Lopopolo: Newcastle. The budget is there, but how will they spend it? Manager Eddie Howe has certainly done enough to gain significant backing in the transfer window, and the club’s new Saudi owners will have more time than they did in January to splash the cash. They can probably do better than Chris Wood up front, and they’ll likely need more help at the back.

Nesci: Manchester United. There’s a prevailing thought that retooling a squad takes several transfer windows. That may be true in some cases, especially when financial limitations are at play, but Manchester United are able to operate outside of that realm. Independent of the Premier League’s financial might, this is one of the most commercially powerful clubs in the world. That means new manager Erik Ten Hag can revamp quickly if United hit the mark with their summer signings.

Rouse: Wolverhampton Wanderers. If it wasn’t for Jose Sa – winner of the players’ Player of the Season award – who knows how this season would’ve fared. Wolves’ promising period around the turn of the year has descended into relegation form. Changes are needed.

Is Erik ten Hag the man to turn around United’s fortunes?

Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Lopopolo: Who knows. Ten Hag is undoubtedly a capable manager who can develop young talent. He’s also an attack-first coach who fits into Manchester United’s ethos. But this job is about more than coaching. It’s politics. He’ll need to establish a culture of accountability at United and push out the passengers in this side. Easier said than done.

Nesci: Manchester United damn well hope so! The Red Devils can’t afford a repeat of the disjointed, garbled mess of a season they just endured. If there’s a willingness at the executive level to let the Dutch tactician implement his philosophy – and crucially, some patience – Ten Hag can be the manager who brings the club back to the upper echelon of the Premier League.

Rouse: Unless Ten Hag suddenly develops a knack for psychokinesis, nobody can confidently answer “yes” to this question. The main thing that will dictate the success of the Dutchman’s tenure will be his relationships at the club. Holism is so important during a rebuild. Ten Hag must also be given time to restore belief in an unhappy squad.

How long will Chelsea’s rebuild take?

Naomi Baker – The FA / The FA Collection / Getty

Lopopolo: It all depends on ownership. If the U.K. government approves the U.S. consortium’s £4.25-billion takeover and allows Chelsea to operate normally in the transfer market, the club could turn it around in a year. But maybe the new owners will decide to take a more holistic approach. Thomas Tuchel has a fairly young squad at his disposal, and he may fancy the opportunity to build from there.

Nesci: Not long. Their season fizzled out badly, but this isn’t exactly a club stuck in the doldrums, regardless of the uncertainty surrounding the ownership situation; Chelsea, at least for another few days, are the reigning European champions, remember. The team is still loaded, even if defensive reinforcements are needed, and Tuchel is an elite manager. If all else fails, the Blues can lean on their “loan army” to help alleviate lingering squad concerns.

Rouse: We don’t even know when the purse strings will be loosened for Tuchel. The sale narrative has been topsy-turvy and tiresome. If it’s sorted with time to conduct business in the transfer window, it could take just a couple of months. Even after this summer’s departures, it’s a stacked squad awash with cup-winning experience.

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Manchester City beat Liverpool to EPL title after miraculous comeback win

Manchester City dragged their supporters through a gamut of emotions before capturing their fourth Premier League title in five years with a stirring 3-2 win over Aston Villa on Sunday.

On one of the most intense final days in Premier League history, Kevin De Bruyne had the presence of mind to slide the ball across for Ilkay Gundogan to score the 81st-minute goal that would eventually secure City’s breathless comeback victory. Five minutes earlier, City were two goals down to Steven Gerrard’s side and facing the prospect of surrendering the title in deeply embarrassing circumstances.

The result meant Liverpool’s nervy 3-1 home win over Wolverhampton Wanderers couldn’t trouble Pep Guardiola’s side in first place. City won the title by a single point.

Tom Flathers / Manchester City FC / Getty

City weren’t themselves for the majority of Villa’s visit. Fernandinho, in his last appearance for the club, was vulnerable at center-back. City’s attackers struggled to make an impression while the Villans defended stoutly. And Aston Villa threatened to burst forward each time they got hold of the ball and resisted the home team’s press.

It was a swift attack that put City on the back foot. Aston Villa quickly moved up the gears from defense before Lucas Digne’s teasing cross was powered home by Matty Cash’s head.

City still had a tentative grip on top spot at halftime despite the one-goal deficit. With Liverpool only drawing 1-1 against an out-of-form Wolves on Merseyside, Guardiola’s outfit was ahead of their northwest rivals on goal difference.

But City made it more difficult for themselves. They entered the second half with more impetus, stronger for Oleksandr Zinchenko replacing Fernandinho at the break, until former Liverpool favorite Phillippe Coutinho punctured the hosts’ growing belief and stunned the Etihad Stadium.

OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty

Robin Olsen smashed his goal-kick long upfield, Ollie Watkins beat Rodri to flick the ball on, and Coutinho skipped inside Aymeric Laporte before putting Villa 2-0 ahead in the 69th minute.

Liverpool were still level with Wolves but a goal from the Reds seemed an inevitability. City’s title, after being 14 points ahead in mid-January, was slipping away.

But City evoked memories of their comeback against Queens Park Rangers from a decade earlier, offering a three-goal punch which began in the 76th minute.

Matt McNulty – Manchester City / Manchester City FC / Getty

Gundogan, who was brought on in Bernardo Silva’s stead just moments before Coutinho’s goal, started the fightback when he rose at the far post to meet Raheem Sterling’s cross with a bullet header.

Rodri leveled the game. Zinchenko wriggled his way toward the box from the left flank before picking out the Spaniard on the edge of the box. Rather than a customary smash from Rodri, he coolly side-footed the ball into the bottom corner.

Then, everything that went on down the M62 in Liverpool wouldn’t matter. De Bruyne collected a spillage from the edge of the area, powered through three Villa players, and passed the ball across the goal. Gundogan tapped home, firmly establishing himself as a legendary figure in Manchester City’s history.

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Premier League

What's at stake on the final day of the Premier League season?

The exhilarating 2021-22 Premier League season comes to a close Sunday, with plenty still at stake as all 20 clubs take the pitch at 11 a.m. ET. Below, we examine what’s left to play for heading into the final matchday.

Title race

Simon Stacpoole/Offside / Offside / Getty

The big one.

An engrossing scrap between Europe’s two most dynamic teams comes to an end Sunday, with Manchester City looking to retain their domestic crown and, in the process, scupper Liverpool’s pursuit of a historic quadruple.

The battle, overseen by Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, has quickly developed into the Premier League’s best modern rivalry. While there’s still much to play for elsewhere in the table, most eyes will be on the Etihad Stadium and Anfield this weekend.

Matches:

  • Manchester City vs. Aston Villa
  • Liverpool vs. Wolves
POSITION CLUB GD POINTS
1 Manchester City +72 90
2 Liverpool +66 89

City, who have 21 goals in their last five league matches, control their own destiny. They’ll be crowned champions once again with a victory over Aston Villa, regardless of what happens at Anfield. In a delicious twist, Villa boss Steven Gerrard, a Liverpool icon who famously never lifted the Premier League trophy with the Reds, could play a key role in delivering a league crown to Merseyside after all.

Liverpool, who still have the Champions League final on the horizon, will be scoreboard watching and hoping for a favor. Whatever happens, this will go down as one of the most captivating races in recent memory.

The Premier League went to a 38-match schedule beginning in 1995-96. Since then, a haul of 92 points – Liverpool’s total if they win Sunday – would’ve been enough to win the title in all but five campaigns, excluding this season. That highlights how brilliant both teams have been this year; Liverpool have lost just two league matches, yet City, who are approaching the 100-goal mark for the campaign, are still keeping them at bay. It’s been a titanic tussle. It’s a shame it has to end.

Champions League qualification

Visionhaus / Getty Images Sport / Getty

There’s only one Champions League place left up for grabs heading into Sunday’s concurrent fixtures, with the bitter north London foes Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal set to conclude what’s been an erratic, back-and-forth battle for fourth place.

The Gunners, in a position of extreme strength just a week ago, have crumbled down the stretch, losing consecutive matches – including a 3-0 setback against Spurs – to give their rivals the advantage. The situation for Antonio Conte and Tottenham is, therefore, painfully simple: don’t lose to the worst team in the league Sunday, and you’re in the Champions League.

Matches:

  • Norwich City vs. Tottenham
  • Arsenal vs. Everton
POSITION CLUB GD POINTS
4 Tottenham +24 68
5 Arsenal +9 66

Even a draw will be enough for Spurs, who boast an enormous advantage on goal difference; should the two sides finish level on 69 points, Tottenham will snatch fourth via that tiebreaker, barring an inconceivable 15-goal swing.

Conte, hired in November to replace the floundering Nuno Espirito Santo, has faced a checkered spell at Tottenham – often by his own making through a series of interesting soundbites and interviews. However, he looks destined to accomplish a feat that appeared nigh impossible when he arrived at the club.

Whoever misses out on fourth place will go into next season’s Europa League.

European places

PAUL ELLIS / AFP / Getty

It’s not much in the grand scheme, but Manchester United have a chance to salvage their season by clinching sixth place and a berth in the Europa League. West Ham United, who at times threatened to blow up the top-four hegemony before eventually dropping off the pace, could yet upset the applecart and head to the south coast knowing there’s still hope.

Matches:

  • Crystal Palace vs. Manchester United
  • Brighton vs. West Ham
POSITION CLUB GD POINTS
6 Manchester United +1 58
7 West Ham +11 56

The Red Devils travel to Selhurst Park in full control of their own fate. A win will end Ralf Rangnick’s erratic coaching tenure on a high note and give incoming bench boss Erik ten Hag another target to obtain next season. A failure to win, though, gives the Hammers a golden opportunity to run it back after their impressive Europa League adventure this season.

If the two teams finish level on points, David Moyes’ squad will pip United to sixth by virtue of a superior goal difference. Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. haven’t taken the pitch since May 7, when they were thumped 4-0 by Brighton. Will the break prove beneficial?

Whichever team finishes seventh will play in next year’s Europa Conference League, ensuring that, one way or another, continental football beckons for both clubs.

Relegation battle

Alex Dodd – CameraSport / CameraSport / Getty

And then there were two.

Everton secured their Premier League safety with a miraculous 3-2 win over Crystal Palace on Thursday, coming back from two goals down in the second half to ensure they won’t suffer a humbling relegation to the Championship.

The manic celebrations at Goodison Park – fans invaded the pitch before the full-time whistle to celebrate Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s match-winning goal – were met with disdain in Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Everton’s desperate escape means one of Burnley or Leeds United will finish 18th and drop to England’s second tier next season.

Matches:

  • Burnley vs. Newcastle
  • Brentford vs. Leeds
POSITION CLUB GD POINTS
17 Burnley -18 35
18 Leeds -38 35

Burnley, who earned a potentially invaluable point against Aston Villa on Thursday, boast a superior goal difference and only need to match Leeds’ result Sunday to survive. Neither team has won since April. There is, quite literally, no better time for either club to break that slump.

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