Midway through the second half, as the game on which a season hung started to build in a nerve-shredding, pulse-straining crescendo, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold found himself waiting to take a throw-in within a couple of feet of Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager.
Ordinarily, in these circumstances, the conventions of rivalry dictate that the two adversaries must studiously ignore each other’s presence. The manager offers instruction to someone standing in the opposite direction. The player averts his gaze, lest acknowledgment be mistaken for treachery.
Guardiola, though, has little truck with convention. With Sunday’s game paused for an injury, he sidled over to Alexander-Arnold, draped his arm over his shoulder and initiated what can only be described as a chat. He was, as he always is, somewhere between animated and agitated, but there was a broad grin on his face, genuine affection in his gestures. It was unmistakable: In the game with everything on the line, Guardiola was enjoying himself.
That should not, really, be surprising. The meeting of indisputably the best and second-best teams in England — order yet to be determined — and most likely the best and second-best teams on the planet, had produced an abundance of things to enjoy. The goals, of course: four of them evenly shared in a 2-2 tie, each of them brilliantly conceived and surgically executed. And the chances, too, the majority of them falling to City, all spun out of golden thread.
All of that, though, was simply the product. The greater satisfaction, perhaps, was in the process, the compelling ebb and flow of two finely balanced forces, a high-speed, high-caliber call and response. City pressed Liverpool, breaking its rhythm, triggering errors. Liverpool withstood the onslaught, drawing the sting and striking back. City twice took the lead, through Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus; Liverpool twice picked its way back, through Diogo Jota and Sadio Mané.
That is not, though, the sort of thing that is supposed to appeal to a coach, particularly with quite so much on the line. This game had been pinpointed, months ago, as the one that would decide the Premier League title. As the season rolled on and rivals fell away, its significance had only grown.
Manchester City is chasing a domestic and European treble. Liverpool can still, in theory, complete a clean sweep, winning all four of the trophies available to Jürgen Klopp and his team. This game had the air, from the outside, of the moment on which all of that would stand or fall. It was only after this that all that had gone before would have any meaning, any consequence.
With all of that at stake, though, there was Guardiola, smiling away, laughing and joking with Alexander-Arnold as if he did not have a care in the world. Perhaps it was some sort of subtle psychological warfare. Perhaps he was trying to gain some sort of edge, to distract and discombobulate his opponent.
Or perhaps Guardiola sincerely relished the experience, the chance to see if he could kill off the challenge — for now, at least — of Klopp, the coach he has described as the greatest rival of his career, and Liverpool, the team he has called, in the most complimentary terms imaginable, a “pain” in a particularly sensitive area.
Most of the time, after all, Guardiola finds himself forced to try to unpluck the massed ranks of a defense, to overcome an opponent with little ambition and precious little hope. It is not every day that he finds a team willing to stand up to him, or capable of doing it.
Or perhaps he knew that the day that had been declared decisive would not decide anything. Half an hour or so later, after all, the final whistle had blown on the 2-2 draw and everything remained as it was. Both teams stood where they had before. Manchester City, which now has seven games to play in the Premier League, has one point more than Liverpool, just as it had at the start of the day.
It might have been better, of course: After 30 games and 94 minutes of the Premier League season, City’s Riyad Mahrez had found himself on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, the ball at his feet and Alisson, the visiting goalkeeper, stranded. Mahrez seemed almost spoiled for choice. He attempted a deft lob, conjuring an artful parabola, but his calculations were off, just barely. The ball looped down, over the bar rather than under it, and the chance to win here, to stretch clear of Liverpool in the table, was gone.
Who knows? In time, City may come to regret that miss. This is a Premier League season of the finest margins, and whichever of these teams wins the title, there will be precious little between them.
But, for now, stasis was enough. Stasis, from Manchester City’s point of view, was acceptable. A sense of vindication, if not quite triumph, swept around the Etihad Stadium as the players stood on the turf, heaving breath back into their lungs. John Stones, the City defender, pumped a fist in the air.
There was a feeling of one down, at least one more to go. These teams will meet again next weekend, in the semifinals of the F.A. Cup, and could yet find each other in Paris at the end of next month, with the Champions League trophy at stake. Guardiola, it is fair to say, probably would not enjoy that one quite so much.
In the Premier League, though, Manchester City still has the advantage. For now, anyway. It is a slender one, but it is an advantage. Its fate is in its hands. Liverpool, by contrast, must rely on someone else to find a way to stop Guardiola’s juggernaut at some point between now and the end of May.
City’s lead is a single point, and it has been earned over the course of nine long months. An entire season has gone into that single point. At the end, though, a single point is enough. When things are so finely poised, when there is so much to enjoy, a single point can be a chasm.
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