Last season, the climax of the English Premier League (EPL) race was, erm, an anticlimax.
Manchester City were 16 points ahead of the pack with six games to go. All that was required was a satisfying victory over rivals Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium.
How sweet that would have been. Instead, City gave away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2, giving United a remote mathematical chance of catching up. Bubbly back on the ice.
The next Sunday, while manager Pep Guardiola spent the team’s day off playing golf and the players lazed about or helped themselves to a pint or two, United faced bottom-of-the-table West Brom Albion in what was supposed to be a routine errand to collect three points.
Many of them were not even paying attention to the goings on at Old Trafford. They should have been: West Brom upset the apple cart and beat United 1-0, putting the league title beyond the Manchurians’ reach.
It’s a totally different story this season as we witness the most thrilling run-in since Leicester City’s fairy tale triumph a few seasons ago.
The battle for top spot
City have been playing with the same fluidity and intensity as last season.
There were predictions early in the season that they would repeat the feat of the last edition and clinch the title early. But those pundits had not reckoned with the maturing of the revolution that Jürgen Klopp had started at Anfield three seasons ago.
Klopp and his charges just simply ignored the noise about who was favourite and how beautifully City were playing.
They just did their thing and have remained in a tense, tight race with City for most the season, save for a period of a few weeks when it seemed as if City were pulling away.
As Klopp put it after his side moved to the top following Friday’s 3-1 victory over Southampton: “People want us to play like Manchester City, but we are unable to do that, so we play our own football.”
At this point, only Pastor Alph Lukau would be brave enough to predict whether it will be Jordan Henderson or Vincent Kompany who will lift the trophy next month. But, if the run-in was to be taken as an indicator, Liverpool should have the easier ride.
Liverpool’s toughest remaining fixtures are against Chelsea, who are chasing a Champions League spot, and surprise outfit Wolves, who want to ensure Europa League action next season.
The rest of the games – against 18th placed Cardifff, 14th-placed Newcastle and already relegated Huddersfield – should theoretically be easy-peasy. But, as United found out last season against West Brom, it just doesn’t work like that.
City have tough ties against third-placed Spurs and sixth-placed United, who are also fighting for Champions League places.
The clashes against 15th-placed Brighton and 17th-placed Burnley could be tricky as relegation-threatened teams throw all caution to the wind.
Leicester completes the reigning champions’ list of opponents.
This is the cometh the hour, cometh the man time. For City, that man will be Raheem Sterling, who is being mentioned as one of the planet’s best footballers alongside the Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of this world.
Liverpool will be hoping that Virgil van Dijk – the world’s priciest defender – will continue with the performances that have made him the favourite to take the EPL player of the year gong.
Having played every single game this season – he even captained in the absence of Henderson – the Dutchman has been the granite pillar of Anfield house.
Scramble for Champions League places
Moving to Wembley last season while their new stadium was being built was supposed to be a drawback for Tottenham, but Mauricio Potchetino’s men defied the doomsayers and were in the race for top honours, ultimately finishing third.
With the stadium costs escalating, Spurs infamously made history in August by becoming the first club in the Premier League era not to sign a player in the summer transfer window. The worst was predicted as the other top six clubs spent big.
But Spurs again defied the odds and were in the chase for the 2018/19 trophy until a bad run of injuries to key players at a crucial part of the season slowed them down.
Now in their stunning new stadium, Spurs lie third on the log, but have the rejuvenated Arsenal and United breathing down their neck.
Arsenal are playing with more purpose under Unai Emery and, very importantly, the gloom of the last Arsène Wenger years has lifted.
The Emirates’ faithful are happy and positive again, which has clearly rubbed off on the players, who are determined to reward the fans by achieving the psychologically important feat of finishing above north London archrivals Spurs.
When Ole Gunnar Solskjær arrived at Manchester United, he was supposed to arrest the decline and exorcise the ghost of José Mourinho.
But he clearly had other ideas and he quickly turned the chaotic side into one of the top four contenders.
After an amazing run of inspired wins, United have come down from the clouds.
Chelsea have had a season to forget under the unpopular Maurizio Sarri. For much of the season, he has endured a passive player mutiny against his rigid tactics. He has faced fan outrage about his initial reluctance to blood in youngsters like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi, despite them performing well for the England senior team.
Of the contenders for a top-four spot, Chelsea will almost certainly be left out.
Regardless of who takes the trophy or makes the Champions League, this has been a season to die for.