Manchester City rewrote the record books in a near flawless campaign to win the Premier League last season, but by holding off Liverpool to retain the title, they have secured their status as true greats of the English game.
A year ago it seemed City had set impossible standards to sustain in a 100-point season, winning the title with five games to go.
But by amassing another 98 points while being pushed all the way by Champions League finalists Liverpool, and staying on course for the first domestic treble in English football history, City have raised the bar again.
“It’s the toughest league I’ve ever played as a manager, because of the quality of the rivals,” said Pep Guardiola, who has now won eight league titles in 10 seasons in charge of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.
“When you get 100 points, everyone thinks we won’t do what we have to do, that we will do less because we won, but it has been completely the opposite.”
City have now won four titles in the past eight seasons. Complete the treble against Watford in the FA Cup final next weekend and it will be 10 major trophies since the club’s Abu Dhabi owners started pumping huge amounts of money into the famously underachieving club in 2008.
Guardiola’s side are the first team to retain the title since their bitter rivals Manchester United managed the feat in 2009.
United enjoyed a period of dominance in English football stretching over 20 years, taking over the mantle from Liverpool, who enjoyed sustained success domestically and in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.
City’s achievement, allied to their recent glut of trophies, establishes them beyond doubt as top dogs in the Premier League and they are desperate to produce their own dynasty.
Beyond the captivating football City expected when they made Guardiola their manager in 2016, they have shown the mentality and grit needed by all great sides.
Unlike their cruise to winning the league by a record 19 points last season, Guardiola’s men needed every one of their 98 to see off Liverpool and prolong the Reds’ long wait for a league title to at least 30 years, even though Jurgen Klopp’s men smashed their club record points tally with 97.
Chelsea, Southampton and Huddersfield Town were hit for six, but as the season reached a nervy conclusion, City held their nerve to win three of their last five games 1-0.
The past week also put City’s achievements into perspective, with the four sides immediately below them in the table qualifying for European finals.
It was also a few days that let Liverpool believe in football miracles. Klopp’s men produced a heroic comeback from 3-0 down on aggregate to thrash the mighty Barcelona 4-0 and set up a Champions League final with Tottenham Hotspur, who themselves overturned a 3-0 deficit against Ajax to make it to Madrid.
“From our point of view it could be a big football moment on the weekend, the week is not over yet,” said an optimistic Klopp on Friday.
Liverpool beat Wolves 2-0 to end the season with nine straight wins as they ramped up the pressure.
But the City machine methodically picked off every one of the opponents that stood in their way from February through to May, completing a remarkable 14-game winning run to close out the title at Brighton.
For the first time Guardiola has shown his ability to chase, as well as lead from the front.
A shock run of three defeats in four games in December meant City opened the year by welcoming Liverpool to the Etihad Stadium seven points behind.
The champions’ 2-1 win was the only game Liverpool lost in the league all season and yet they still had to settle for second best.
“The most satisfaction I’ve had as a manager,” said Guardiola.
“When you are seven points behind, you can say: ‘It’s done’. We did the opposite of that. We were like (chipping away at) a stone. After that, we arrive here.”
City can now consider themselves among the greatest sides English football has ever seen.