The Premier League title race is now down to who blinks first, and Manchester City overcame Leeds United with the bravery and quality of champions who have been down this road before.
The margins are so thin that even one draw could derail City’s title bid, as well as Liverpool’s, who are relentlessly pursuing the reigning champions in their own bid to become the first English team to win the quadruple.
Every victory must be matched in kind, and the current situation was perfectly condensed into events taking place 100 miles apart, as Liverpool faced Newcastle at St. James’ Park on Saturday lunchtime and City visited Elland Road five hours later.
The psychological pressures as well as the world-class teams involved make this clash between two of club football’s greatest sides so enthralling, and City will have hoped that Newcastle’s recent rejuvenation under Eddie Howe might just be enough to halt the Liverpool juggernaut.
Not a bit of it.
Liverpool won more comfortably than a 1-0 score suggests, so the pressure and scenery shifted to Leeds, where City encountered the usual cauldron of noise and fervent support that can unsettle even the best, most composed team.
Manchester City, lest we forget when the focus shifts to Liverpool’s trophy chase, are well-versed in being both hunted and hunter as the title race reaches a crossroads. They held their nerve to beat Liverpool in 2013-14, then beat Jurgen Klopp’s team by one point in 2018-19.
This is not to say that a twist or turn in the next four league games will not change that narrative, but any notion that City will crumble as they see Liverpool in their rearview mirror can be dismissed when looking at past history and performances like this 4-0 win.
This was a test on and off the field, but City handled it with ease and style, doing the dirty work to establish dominance before cutting Leeds apart in a manner that could have resulted in an even more emphatic victory.
Leeds United fans were deafeningly loud and whipped up into a frenzy before kick-off, but a measured City start resulted in Rodri’s opening goal. They also came through a scrappy spell that suited Jesse Marsch’s side far better, so when Nathan Ake poked home the second goal nine minutes after the break, it was game over.
The extra brush strokes came from Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho, but it was Phil Foden who 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 drew grudging applause from some Leeds fans.
As Liverpool demonstrated earlier, squad strength will be crucial in these final stages, with both Klopp and Pep Guardiola expertly moving their pieces.
Liverpool won despite resting Mohamed Salah, Thiago, and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and Riyad Mahrez were all rested by Guardiola. Leeds were still getting thrashed.
Of course, this was all done with Liverpool and City holding leads over Villarreal and Real Madrid, respectively, going into the second legs of the Champions League final semi-finals, but it is a delicate balancing act when those decisions are made with the knowledge that one slip could cost a major prize.
Leeds, despite their best efforts, were no match for City, and keeper Ederson remained untroubled until the game was won when Joao Cancelo headed off the line from Dan James and the keeper saved with his legs from Joe Gelhardt.
Leeds are in a worrying situation, which has been exacerbated by Burnley’s comeback to move away from the relegation zone. They may end up being grateful for the five points they have over Everton, despite having played two more games and facing Arsenal away and Chelsea at Elland Road in the coming weeks.
Manchester City’s sights are set on higher goals, and this was a battle-hardened professional performance from a team used to being under pressure, shutting out the noise to reclaim first place in the Premier League.
City were rarely unsettled in this magnificent atmosphere, but the pressure valve will be tightened again next weekend when Liverpool face Tottenham, who are chasing a top-four spot, at Anfield on Saturday night before Manchester City face Newcastle at Etihad Stadium the next day.
And, after another day of Premier League title suspense, there is still no sign of a blip.