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Manchester City's Premier League title: Five key wins en route to glory

Manchester City's Premier League title: Five key wins en route to glory


On Saturday, Wolverhampton Wanderers achieved promotion to the Premier League with four games to spare, returning to the top flight for the first time since 2012. It's been a long journey back, after they dropped to League One in 2013, but thanks in large part to significant financial backing from Chinese consortium Fosun and links with super agent Jorge Mendes, they're back.

So who are this team, and how might they fare among the elite?

A goalkeeper in his playing days, Nuno Espirito Santo's stock at the top level had sunk a little last summer after being sacked by Porto. But given he'd taken Valencia into La Liga's top four in 2015, his appointment was a coup for Wolves, after Walter Zenga then Paul Lambert underwhelmed last season.

Nuno, a fairly reserved character away from the pitch, is not exactly an interviewer's dream and will not provide the sort of soundbites and analogies that Carlos Carvalhal and David Wagner have. This season he's been a big-name manager helming an ambitious project who seems to prefer deflecting attention away from himself, and onto his team.

Take your pick, really. It would perhaps be nice to look beyond the obvious, but Ruben Neves really has no business being in the Championship. He was linked with Juventus and Liverpool before a poor last season at Porto -- along with, shall we say, gentle advice from Mendes -- allowed Wolves to sign him for £15.3 million.

It took him a short while to settle in, but after that initial period of adjustment he has been superb, a midfielder of elegance and fine passing and, as 12 yellow cards and one red show, one happy to engage with the earthier demands of the Championship too. He's scored five goals, all of them sensational long-rangers, but the one last week against Derby County summed up his exceptional talent.

For all the money they have spent, two of their more impressive performers this season have been centre-back Conor Coady (signed in 2015 before Fosun's involvement) and left wing-back Barry Douglas (purchased for £1m from Konyaspor last summer), the latter in particular providing remarkable attacking threat from the flanks with his brilliant crossing and free kicks.

Then there's Diogo Jota, on loan from Atletico Madrid, a buzzing forward full of tricks and flicks who's scored 16 goals this season, forward Ivan Cavaleiro, midfielder Romain Saiss, right wing-back Matt Doherty ... we could go on. Short version: basically the whole team has been superb.

Barely diverting from a 3-4-3 formation all season, Nuno has got Wolves playing some sensational football: in the first half of the campaign certainly, blowing teams away with their flowing attacking. Since around Christmas they've had to grind out a few more results, although it says plenty that three defeats in ten games after the turn of the year was as close to a crisis as they got.

They broadly rely on their wing-backs for width, with the nominal wide forwards often operating more as dual No. 10s, making for a flowing, unpredictable front three. You would expect them to continue this style in the top flight, too; after all, there's very little reason for them to change.

The main two areas will be at either end of the pitch. John Ruddy has been good in goal this season, but one wonders if he's a Premier League-quality keeper. They will also need a proper centre-forward. Benik Afobe returned on loan from Bournemouth in January, but a club of their means and ambitions could probably do better.

Elsewhere, they will probably just require the general strengthening throughout the squad that any promoted team does. But they don't have a significant, outstanding weakness that needs fixing, merely the depth required for a successful Premier League season.

While their financial advantage has not exactly won them many friends in the Football League, it means that this is a promoted team for whom survival is not the primary aim. Remaining in the top flight will be regarded as an absolute minimum, and given the mediocrity that has existed below the top seven of the Premier League this season, a top-ten finish is entirely realistic.

Their team as it is would probably have performed respectably in this season's top flight; in the summer they will augment that with significant spending, and while that's not a guarantee of success, it could elevate them above the usual standards of the promoted sides.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.

Manchester City have won the Premier League crown with five matches to spare, making them the joint-fastest to clinch the title. Here are five key games that set Pep Guardiola's side on the path to success:

Aug. 26: 2-1 vs. Bournemouth 2-1 (A)

City didn't start the season in anything like the sort of form they were destined to spend the rest of it. An opening day win at Brighton, only secured after a late strike from Sergio Aguero and a Lewis Dunk own goal, was followed by a frustrating 1-1 draw at home to Everton when Kyle Walker was harshly sent off.

Guardiola's side looked to be heading for yet another draw at Bournemouth in the third match of the season. An inability to turn tight games into victories had blighted Guardiola's first campaign, and it would have seen them continue in the same way had they left the Vitality Stadium with only a point.

But Raheem Sterling scrambled in a 97th-minute winner, and although the England forward was sent off in the celebrations that followed, it proved to be a launchpad for a special season for both Sterling and City.

Sept. 9: 5-0 vs. Liverpool (H)

City's first big test against a top-six rival followed the victory against Bournemouth, and it gave another huge confidence boost to a young team.

In his first season, Guardiola had just two victories against title rivals and had taken only two points in games against Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, which seriously undermined their Premier League hopes.

This time, Liverpool were blown away at the Etihad Stadium, although they didn't help themselves when Sadio Mane was sent off in the 37th minute for a high challenge on goalkeeper Ederson, who was taken off with nasty facial injuries.

City were already ahead by that time through Aguero's neat finish and ruthlessly destroyed Liverpool in the second half to inflict Jurgen Klopp with his worst defeat as a manager.

Sept. 30: 1-0 vs. Chelsea (A)

The buildup to the game was dominated by how City would cope without striker Aguero, who had fractured ribs in a car crash in Amsterdam shortly before the game at Stamford Bridge.

The answer was emphatic as City dominated at the home of the Premier League champions, controlling the game from the first minute and not offering Chelsea a sight of goal until a late chance in the dying minutes.

Kevin De Bruyne was the standout performer on a return to his former club, dictating City's attack before making the breakthrough with a brilliant individual goal when he lashed in a 20-yard left-foot drive.

It was a win that saw City move back to the top of the table, but more crucially it was a significant result and performance at the home of the club that had dominated the Premier League the previous season.

Dec. 10: 2-1 vs. Manchester United (A)

Jose Mourinho all but conceded the title after the first Manchester derby with five months of the season remaining as City moved 11 points clear at the top of the table.

Once again, Guardiola's side were superior despite the slim margin of victory, although they were grateful for sloppy defending by Romelu Lukaku, which gifted goals to David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi either side of half-time.

It was City's 14th consecutive victory -- a new Premier League record -- and one they would go on to extend by another five matches. City's noisy celebrations in the dressing room after the game irked Mourinho and his side, prompting an altercation between a small number of players and staff.

But realistically, every person in that tight corridor outside the Old Trafford dressing room knew City had effectively taken a huge step towards the title that day.

Dec. 16: 4-1 vs. Tottenham (H)

After their derby day victory, City delivered a comfortable midweek win against Swansea City that was followed by the visit by Spurs -- a team that Guardiola had struggled with in his previous season.

There was the possibility that they could suffer a hangover after moving 11 points clear at the top of the table and breaking the record for successive victories.

But there was no such luck for Spurs. City were at their thrilling best as they devastated the visitors, and the only surprise was that with 20 minutes remaining, they only led through Ilkay Gundogan's header.

De Bruyne was brilliant yet again and was fortunate to escape injury after a horrible lunging tackle from Tottenham's Dele Alli. The incident appeared to rile the Belgian, who drove City forward time and time again and eventually smashed in an unstoppable second. Sterling added two more late on as City again underlined their dominance of the Premier League.

Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.