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Mane an 8/10 after leading relentless Liverpool to bittersweet win

Mane an 8/10 after leading relentless Liverpool to bittersweet win

ESPN

Had Manchester City blown it? Glenn Murray had just headed Brighton into the lead in the 27th minute and anyone seeking final-day drama had their hook. City had cracked at the worst possible moment; they had lost their nerve just as the hard work seemed to have been done; they had made a season's excellence count for nothing and Pep Guardiola would face familiar accusations of overcomplicating at a moment that demanded clarity.

Those would have been the headlines, the thinkpieces, the pub discussions if that sole piece of slack defending from a corner had helped send the Premier League trophy to Anfield. But this City team is special. They had not fallen behind in a top-flight game since January and perhaps that was exactly what they needed here, on a sunny south coast afternoon against carefree opponents, the widespread assumption being that they would cruise home by doing what they usually do. 

The close-range header from Murray jolted the reigning champions. Somewhere, perhaps in their deepest subconsciouses, had they persuaded themselves the final chapter of this story could simply write itself? Maybe no amount of meticulous preparation, of cajolement from the tireless Guardiola, could completely mitigate for human nature. In hindsight, you wonder how anyone could have seriously doubted that they would respond. Straight forward they went from the restart, Aymeric Laporte's pass finding David Silva, whose sublime one-touch flick around the corner, freed Sergio Aguero to apply the inevitable. The job had yet to be completed but in the spell of 83 seconds, it was as if a year's worth of pressure had bottlenecked before dissipating as quickly as it had arrived.

-- Man City ratings: Laporte, Gundogan both 8/10 as City clinch title

"It was the hardest and most satisfying Premier League ever," said captain Vincent Kompany, speaking after extricating himself from the delirious bundle into which City's players threw themselves at full-time. "It was the toughest title I have won in my career so far," said his manager. Eventually their 4-1 win had seemed easy, as so much does for this team, but they are the first to stress that nothing ever has been like that.

It was one thing winning the 2017-18 title by a street; it was quite another to be pushed within a point of failure by an outstanding Liverpool side and, if last season's title was hallmarked by the extravagant genius of their football, it was a less tangible quality that hauled them over the line this time. Guts. That is what City showed in abundance during the 14-game winning run that eventually saw them over the line. They had recorded five 1-0 wins in their previous 10 top-flight matches before this afternoon; it doubled the number of victories by that scoreline in their 103 league fixtures prior to that. "Mixing artistry and industry," the City PA announcer bellowed towards the away end during a rapid-fire summary of their success. It was a sound assessment. They may have fallen short in Europe by the finest of margins but, domestically, it is hard to think of a facet they have yet to show.

As usual, though, Guardiola did it his way. Riyad Mahrez had not played a minute of football since City's Champions League semi-final, first-leg defeat at Tottenham four and a half weeks ago. How typical, then, that he would make a selection that bordered on the perverse: bringing the Algerian in while Leroy Sane and a fit-again Kevin De Bruyne began on the bench. As City toiled through that opening quarter on an hour, with Mahrez looking uncomfortable in his starting position on the left and Raheem Sterling finding little joy behind Aguero, the suspicion was that Guardiola's tweak had backfired and minds flicked, too, to the last-minute penalty Mahrez had ballooned at Liverpool in October.

But in the 63rd minute it was Mahrez, deceiving Lewis Dunk with a delicious feint, who drilled their third goal high past Maty Ryan to effectively put the outcome beyond doubt. The goal was eerily similar to a crucial winner Mahrez scored for Leicester at Watford three years ago, when the Foxes were closing in on their own title win. He was the man for the occasion here as well, standing tall and delivering when it mattered. From their squad players to their main men, City have made it an irresistible habit.

"It's a combination of a great group of players, great staff and an incredible desire to overachieve, Kompany said." The Belgian defender was replaced four minutes from time to a generous ovation from all sides of the ground. It had the feeling of a swansong although there is no indication, as yet, of his or the club's plans for next season. Over the next couple of seasons City will face the challenge of replacing the old heads, all doubted at different points in Guardiola's tenure, who have stood up like giants this term: Kompany, Aguero, the absent Fernandinho. The 2018-19 campaign became a stunning encapsulation of the winning mentality they have forged.

Once they were finally back in the dressing room, City's players enjoyed the beers that had been laid on and launched into a raucous rendition of Oasis' "Wonderwall" led by band member and diehard City fan Noel Gallagher himself. Guardiola, meanwhile, was already smelling a repeat performance a year from now.

"It will be tough but we will be stronger," he said. "When you win two in a row it is incredible. I have a feeling next season that we can come back and be who we are right now." They were looking down the barrel but, faced with the unthinkable, this City team's identity became clearer than ever.

It may not have been enough to secure the title but Liverpool ended the season with a 2-0 win and an incredible 97-point haul after a tough encounter with a dogged Wolves side.

Positives

Following their Herculean efforts in midweek to overturn their Champions League tie with Barcelona there were a lot of tired legs, but Liverpool's players fought through it to get the job done. Even when news filtered through that Manchester City were home and dry at Brighton to clinch the title, Jurgen Klopp's team still put everything they had into ending their league campaign with a win. This is a team supporters can be immensely proud of.

Negatives

One defeat all season, the most clean sheets, two forwards sharing the Golden Boot and it's still not enough to end Liverpool's 29-year wait for the title. Football can be incredibly cruel at times.

Manager rating out of 10

8 -- It's to Klopp's eternal credit that his players are able to perform with the heart they have shown week in week out. This was a difficult game against awkward opposition, but Liverpool's players are a reflection of their manager. Brave, determined, positive, indefatigable.

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Alisson Becker, 8 -- Often this season the Brazilian has been little more than a spectator while keeping 21 clean sheets, but not this time. Wolves certainly tested him and he rose to the challenge with some good saves, while also showing a commanding presence throughout.

DF Trent Alexander-Arnold, 8 -- Two more assists to edge him in front of Andy Robertson in their private duel. Looked leggy at times in the second half and his passing became uncharacteristically sloppy, but he fought through the fatigue and ended the game strongly.

DF Joel Matip, 8 -- Another extremely impressive outing. Reads the game very well and is always calm in possession. He's been a revelation this season and will surely keep his place for the Champions League final next month.

DF Virgil van Dijk, 8 -- Excellent as usual and he needed to be against the talented Raul Jimenez. Hit the bar with a late header.

DF Andrew Robertson, 7 -- It's to his credit that he was out there at all as he was clearly playing through the pain of the injury that forced him out of the Barcelona game in midweek. Very impressive in the first half when he stung the hands of the keeper with a blistering drive, but seemed to hit a wall after the break and Wolves began to enjoy some good attacks down his side. Eventually replaced by Joe Gomez.

MF Fabinho, 7 -- Very good. His positional play and covering was exemplary and in the second half when Wolves began to gain some momentum, his calmness in possession came into play as Liverpool began to keep the ball much better.

MF Jordan Henderson, 7 -- Another one who must have been shattered after his efforts the other night. Excellent in the first half and although he had a dip in the middle of the second, he found his second wind and ended the game strongly.

MF Georginio Wijnaldum, 7 -- Neat and tidy in midfield, and then did a good job on the right of the front three before eventually making way for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain late on.

FW Mohamed Salah, 6 -- Worked hard throughout but it just wasn't his day. Perhaps the lack of training following a concussion blunted his usual sharpness, because he just never really got going.

FW Divock Origi, 7 -- Looks like a different player now. The Belgian is suddenly brimming with confidence after his recent success and he started this game superbly. His influence waned after that as Liverpool's performance level dropped, but he could consider himself unfortunate to be the first player brought off, especially having just gone close to scoring with his last touch.

FW Sadio Mane, 8 -- Two more goals that ensured he ended the season with a Golden Boot after finishing level with Salah and Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on 22. Several Liverpool players looked tired, but Mane still looked full of running. He's had a fantastic season.

Substitutes

MF James Milner, 7 -- With Liverpool in danger of losing control of the game in the second half, Klopp summoned the reliable veteran from the bench to settle things down, and that's exactly what he did. Such an important player.

DF Joe Gomez, NR -- Brought on at left back for the tiring Robertson to counteract the lightning speed of Wolves substitute Adama Traore.

FW Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, NR -- Given a late run out on the right but had no time to make any impact.

ESPN