To this day Joleon Lescott still hates watching the final day of the 2011-12 Premier League season. Arguably it was his error, a poor defensive header allowing Djibril Cissé to equalise for Queens Park Rangers, that set up the most thrilling climax seen in English top‑flight football.
And so for Lescott the memory of Manchester City’s greatest day evokes a plethora of varying emotions, not all of them pleasurable. “I just don’t enjoy it,” he confides in 93:20, the documentary commemorating City’s triumph. “I want it to be cleaner. I want a 3-0.”
The sensation of glory is pain multiplied by time divided by shock. For City fans the ecstasy of 2012 – the pain of 44 gruelling years, flipped in a single second – will never truly be matched. And yet, even knowing what we do now, how many City fans would still side with Lescott, strip out the trembling fear and the bitter tears of frustration, take their clean and unfussy 3-0 win? How many would do so again this Sunday against Aston Villa? As we approach the final bars of the 2021-22 season, a wild ride with one more wicked twist in it, City may just be about to reacquaint themselves with the taste of suffering.
“All that is logical says City cannot blow it from here,” Peter Drury says on the television commentary before that QPR game a decade ago, and we might be tempted to draw a similar conclusion here. For all the organisation and discipline of Steven Gerrard’s Villa side it is almost impossible to see them coping with the voracity of City’s press, their penetration and intensity, the sheer variety of the angles at which they strike.
City’s squad have benefited from two days off and their staff from a full week of preparation. Villa will take the field less than 72 hours after being embroiled in a bruising 1-1 draw with Burnley. Whether after three minutes or 93 minutes, all that is logical says City cannot blow it from here.
But – and there is always a but – you just never quite know. The mentality of these occasions can be a weird and disorienting thing, perhaps more akin to a big cup final than a league game. For City’s international players, which is most of them, this will have been their first full week without a game since early-February: a break from routine, a different kind of energy, time to rest but also plenty of time to think.
For serial title-winner Pep Guardiola the final-day showdown remains a largely unfamiliar experience. Seven of his nine league titles as a manager were sealed in advance of the final day, with winning margins of between four and 19 points. This is the Guardiola method: the rolling 38-week tank squadron that beats opponents with perfect processes, not perfect moments. His teams succeed because they play without fear of failure. It is why Guardiola is especially appreciative of his players when they lose: he wants them to feel like the result is the least important thing of all. Which works brilliantly right up until the point when the result is all that’s left.
Even his two last-day triumphs had a bloodlessness to them. In 2010 his Barcelona side played Real Valladolid needing a win to seal the title, went 2-0 up within half an hour and sauntered to a 4-0 procession. Three years ago, in a similar position, City went 1-0 down early on to Brighton, equalised within 83 seconds and won 4-1. The lesson: if City are going to get this done, better to get it done early. Otherwise we are into Lescott territory: a petrified crowd, players operating on the very edge of their sanity. Every Villa counterattack will feel like a cattle prod in the ribs.
Villa, of course, will have their own motivations. They are tied with City on seven league titles; a City win would move them into fifth place on their own. Gerrard, for his own part, would love nothing more than to play a part in winning the title for his old club Liverpool. Villa fans would love nothing more than to see Jack Grealish, the player who left them to win trophies, end the season empty-handed.
Which is why, for all the talk of teams with “nothing to play for”, the broader picture is often far more complex. Could Wolves spring a shock on Liverpool? Bruno Lage’s side have been pretty watery in recent weeks but their 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge proved that there is precious little deference in them. A summer of churn and renewal awaits and Lage has warned a flabby, uneven squad that they are playing for their futures.
Besides, when you are involved in a game this important, a basic species pride tends to kick in. The same will apply to mid-table Brentford and Newcastle as they prepare to play a supporting role in an enthralling relegation shootout.
Leeds, who need to better Burnley’s result against Newcastle, showed against Brighton on Sunday the fight is still there. Recent form, however, suggests the quality is not. And so to Lancashire, where a Burnley win would keep them up for a seventh consecutive season. Again, their commitment has never been in question; the problem, as ever, is the scarcity of chances they create. That is not realistically going to change in the space of 90 minutes. All Burnley can do is the basics: keep their heads, treasure the ball and hope for the best.
Elsewhere the plot-lines are simpler. Arsenal are two points off fourth place with a vastly inferior goal difference and their only real chance of securing Champions League football relies on Tottenham doing a Tottenham at Carrow Road. Meanwhile Son Heung-min is one goal behind Mohamed Salah as he strives to become the first Golden Boot winner in modern times to be neither a recognised striker nor play for a title-chasing club. Then again, we should probably not rule out a late five-goal burst from Cristiano Ronaldo against Crystal Palace, once again sticking it to all the haters, the critics and the cucks in the all-important race for sixth.
In fact, virtually every game has something riding on it: from the title to the Champions League to the Europa League to basic survival. Watford will be desperate to avoid the wooden spoon when they play Chelsea. Southampton will simply be relieved not to lose 9-0 again. It has been a torrid nine months, stalked by plague and fear, postponements and pitch invasions, sackings and shellackings, takeovers and sanctions, heartwarming comebacks and spine-tingling memories. And with 90 minutes remaining, nothing has been settled, nothing has been resolved and nothing is guaranteed.
The only certainty is that one way or the other it’s going to hurt.