Given the miraculous way Manchester City won last year’s title, we’ve been cautious about calling the English Premier League race, but at some point we have to stop living in the past. Last year’s Manchester City team was capable of tracking down Manchester United and finding a stoppage time title winner on the season’s last day, but this team bares little resemblance to them. Most of the names are the same, and the general (squint your eyes) style of play is identical, but as full-time blew on Southampton’s 3-1 win over the visiting Citizens, the defending champions looked incapable of defending their title.
Now the math’s become daunting. The Citizens came into the day nine points back of league-leading United, who host Everton tomorrow. It’s the same lead Barcelona holds over second place Atletico Madrid in Spain, a race few consider viable. If the Red Devils get a result tomorrow, only Bayern Munich will have a larger lead among Europe’s top five leagues. The Premier League race may not be truly mathematically over, but in the parlance of the sport, it is done and dusted. If City makes this a race, they’ll be rising from the dead.
The holders were second best from the opening kickoff, with Saints taking advantage of an early Gareth Barry giveaway and some slack defending to go up in the seventh minute. James Puncheon punched Southampton in front. Steven Davis doubled Saints’ lead in the 22nd before Edin Dzeko gave City momentary life, scoring in the 39th.
Then Barry, capping an uncharacteristically poor performance, provided a perfect finish to Ricky Lambert’s 48th minute cross, beating Joe Hart to put Southampton up 3-1 and deal his team a demoralizing blow.
Southamption is a better team than their 15th-place record suggests, and with a progressive style of play that challenges teams expecting reverence from their opponents, you can see why they gave City trouble. Still, a more ready reason for City’s failures rests with the men from Manchester. They are just nowhere near as good as they were last year. The strength and constant imposition that defined last year’s squad as been replaced with a dependence on resilience and ingenuity, a dependance that’s failed to carry then through the season. They’re a different team, a worse team, and a squad that’s not going to replicate last year’s miracles.
Out of Europe, too far behind Manchester United, and in no danger of falling out of the top four, all that’s left is for City to reclaim the FA Cup. They travel to Elland Road to face Leeds United next weekend. After that, they enter the ennui-laden state of a disappointing squad forced to cast their eyes to next year four months too soon.