The Premier League title chase is now down to who blinks first, and Manchester City overcame Leeds United with the poise and quality of champions who have been through this before.
The margins are so slim that even a draw might jeopardize City’s title hopes, as well as Liverpool’s, who are chasing down the defending champions in their own quest to become the first English team to accomplish the quadruple.
Every win demands a retaliation, and the current situation was nicely condensed into events occurring 100 miles apart, Liverpool won Newcastle at St. James’ Park on Saturday midday and City won at Elland Road five hours later.
This clash between two of club football’s best sides is exciting because of the psychological demands involved, as well as the world-class squads involved, and City will have been hopeful that Newcastle’s recent revival under Eddie Howe might just halt the Liverpool juggernaut.
Not even a smidgeon of it.
The pressure and the environment moved to Leeds, where City found themselves in the traditional cauldron of noise and fanatical support that can rattle even the best, most composed squad.
This is not the case.
Manchester City are well-drilled in being chased and hunter as the title race hits its pain points, lest we forget when the attention shifts to Liverpool’s pursuit of silverware. In 2013-14, they held their nerve to beat Liverpool, and in 2018-19, they beat Jurgen Klopp’s team by one point.
This isn’t to suggest that a twist or turn in the following four league games won’t affect the narrative, but any notion that City would crumble as they look back at Liverpool can be disregarded when looking at prior history and performances like this 4-0 win.
Manchester City not backing down
On and off the field, this was a test, but City breezed through it with ease and style, performing the grunt work to establish dominance before tearing Leeds apart in a manner that could have resulted in an even more emphatic victory.
Leeds United’s fans were once again deafeningly loud and whipped into a frenzy before kick-off, but Rodri’s opening goal came from a measured City start. They also came through a feisty period that suited Jesse Marsch’s side far better, but Nathan Ake’s goal nine minutes after the break sealed the deal.
Phil Foden was the game’s true artist, an ocean of calm and skill amid occasional mayhem, having a hand in City’s first three goals before a substitution that even drew grudging applause from some Leeds fans.
As Liverpool showed earlier, squad strength will be crucial in the final stages, with both Klopp and Pep Guardiola expertly moving their pieces around.
Liverpool beat Newcastle despite Klopp resting Mohamed Salah, Thiago, and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and Riyad Mahrez were held back by Guardiola. Leeds continued to get pummeled.
Of course, all of this was done with the goal of keeping Liverpool and City’s respective leads over Villarreal and Real Madrid going into the second legs of the Champions League semi-finals, but it’s a delicate balancing act when decisions are made knowing that one slip may lose a big prize.
Leeds, while giving it their all, were no match for City, and Ederson remained untroubled until the game was won when Joao Cancelo headed off the line from Dan James and the keeper saved Joe Gelhardt with his legs.
Leeds are going through a troubling period, which has been aggravated by Burnley’s comeback in their bid to get out of the relegation zone. Even though they have played two more games, they may be grateful for the five points they have over Everton, especially since they have Arsenal away and Chelsea at Elland Road coming up.
Manchester City have greater ambitions, and this was a battle-hardened professional performance from a squad used to dealing with pressure, shutting out the noise to reclaim first place in the Premier League.
In this wonderful environment, City were rarely unsettled, but the pressure valve will be tightened again next weekend when Liverpool face Tottenham, who are pursuing a top-four spot, at Anfield on Saturday night before Guardiola’s men face Newcastle at Etihad Stadium the next day.
And no hint of a blink after another day of Premier League title drama.