When Stoke City followed their hard-fought but hardly undeserved point from a 0-0 draw at the Etihad with a home defeat to Chelsea, even the most optimistic of Manchester City supporters probably decided to draw a line under 2016-17’s largely ineffective “title push.”
The manner of Chelsea’s snatch-and-grab win at the bet365 Stadium also told many people that this is a side that is neither about to collapse within sight of the finishing line nor likely to run out of luck anytime soon.
Chelsea’s performance last weekend matched their performances throughout the season: unrelenting, hyperorganised, riding their luck at times and killing the game off as soon as the right opportunity presented itself. The outcome seemed crushingly inevitable, despite Stoke’s valiant attempts to rebalance things.
In many ways, Chelsea represent the polar opposite of a profligate City side, which has thrown chance after chance to the four winds this season, has had little luck at critical moments and has looked disorganised and open to the sucker punch for large portions of the campaign. Where Chelsea have built their success on the unerring solidity of the goalkeeper, central defence and defensive midfield, City have been found wanting in these very areas.
Indeed, the City vs. Chelsea match at the Etihad, a 3-1 loss for the home team, was in many ways illustrative of this very point.
City dominated proceedings and had two gilt-edged chances to go 2-0 up against the leaders, but missed them both. Kevin De Bruyne’s effort, which scraped the top of the bar from a central-attacking position five yards or so out from goal, was perhaps the pivotal moment of City’s entire title campaign. Had that gone in, the home side would have gained a deserved lead and had something to hold onto in a game that could have rerouted the season’s story.
Instead, within 20 minutes, Chelsea had broken away twice to score and City had been reduced to nine men, as Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho finally lost their tempers with a frustrating match and frustrating opponents.
Make no bones about it, Chelsea will have deserved their title when it is finally delivered to London SW6. But Pep Guardiola’s team, now squaring for a fight with Tottenham for second place, must look over a season of unfulfilled promise.
With an FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal the only thing separating City from a trophy-less season, the manager has been left to formulate his ideas of how to make a better fist of his second campaign in England for some time already.
Undressed by a youthful Monaco side in the Champions League and knocked out of the EFL Cup with a whimper against archrivals Manchester United, City would still find the FA Cup to be a worthwhile memento of Guardiola’s first season in charge. Among the followers of a club that put the “B” in “barren,” few and far between are those who will admit to being tired of seeing City captains holding trophies of any sort aloft.
By the end of this campaign, it will have been three seasons without a title win for a club that used to console itself that 35 without a trophy wasn’t bad going. After investment, growth and confidence-building came the successes of Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, bringing the first baubles to City’s dusty trophy cabinet since the 1976 League Cup triumph over a flu-ridden Newcastle United. Two Premier Leagues, two League Cups and an FA Cup later, the feeling will not go away that the club should and could have won more in this period of newfound success.
A lost FA Cup final to Wigan, semifinal defeats to Liverpool and Manchester United in the League Cup and a semifinal Champions League defeat against Real Madrid last season represent other close shaves, but the league titles of Chelsea, Leicester and — presumably — Chelsea again this year leave something of a sour taste in the mouth.
City’s challenge in the summer will be to finally offload the players that escaped the cull last summer and recruit with precision and efficiency for the positions that have been a problem for more than two years. Their pursuit of Benfica’s agile young goalkeeper, Ederson, and two swift, energetic full-backs will herald a start to proceedings. Further adjustments to an aging midfield, where Yaya Toure appears to have shot his bolt and David Silva cannot go on forever, will have to be considered.
The first era of City’s modern success story is gradually pulling to a close. Those who have dragged a reluctant club into the limelight can be rightly proud of what they have achieved and will be appropriately remembered in Manchester City folklore. But time waits for no man, and the future — in the shape of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan and John Stones — will soon be upon us.
Simon is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.