There were four cheers to be heard in south-east London on Sunday. The first, approximately 80 minutes before kick-off, was in the trains pulling up to Thornton Heath and the streets surrounding Selhurst Park.
It was when news filtered through to the gathering Manchester Cityfans of Demba Ba’s opening goal at Anfield. The second, while the players were warming up, arrived with Chelsea’s second. Then, after respectively four and 43 minutes, the away corner of Selhurst Park erupted in further joy as Manchester City sealed a victory that puts their Premier League destiny back into their own hands.
Win their remaining three games, against Everton, Aston Villa and West Ham United, and the title will almost certainly belong to the blue half of Manchester for a second time in three years. With an estimated £1 billion investment in the club since the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008, it may rather spoil the romantic ending that seemed scripted this season but it would represent another triumph for the most complete team in England.
This performance was back to the ominous steamrollering Manchester City who, earlier in the season, went on a run of 18 wins and two draws in 20 matches. It coincided with the return to the starting team of Yaya Touré who, after the thigh injury that had threatened to end his season only two weeks ago, was at his absolute best. He brought authority to the City midfield, solidity to their defence and, crucially, also the vision to sharpen the team’s cutting edge.
Touré’s performance also underlined the folly of the Professional Footballers’ Association conducting their poll for the Player of the Season in March. Liverpool were brilliant that month and they duly had three nominees in Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard at the awards ceremony on Sunday night.
Touré was the only City representative but they may yet have the last laugh. For all the accolades that were in Suárez’s direction, this was Touré’s day. It might also prove to be the pivotal afternoon in the entire season. Even in a team that contained Samir Nasri, Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko, it was Touré who provided the decisive attacking option to ensure that City seized their opportunity and Crystal Palace never threatened to extend the five-match winning run that had guaranteed their survival.
Palace’s resurgence under Tony Pulis has owed most to their defensive resilience and pace out wide, qualities that make them especially dangerous opposition for the leading clubs. That game-plan, however, is dependent on high levels of concentration and few mistakes, especially early in a match. As Chelsea found in losing here last month, the pressure then builds and, even if you are dominant in possession, you are still susceptible to rapid counter-attacks.
Manuel Pellegrini will undoubtedly have impressed upon City the need for patience. Yet after only four minutes, Touré was afforded space in the final third of the pitch and his perfectly weighted cross between Scott Dann and Joel Ward was headed past Julian Speroni by Edin Dzeko. It calmed any nerves and, with Palace always likely to struggle to execute a ‘Plan B’, effectively settled the match.
Cameron Jerome and Jason Puncheon offered Palace’s only threat but the added onus to attack was always likely to leave more defensive holes. From a Samir Nasri cross, Vincent Kompany headed just wide.
Touré then gave a complete demonstration of his many qualities for City’s second. Having won the ball near the halfway line, he shrugged off tackles from Yannick Bolasie and Joe Ledley before exchanging passes with Nasri and driving into the penalty area. The ball might then have cannoned slightly fortuitously but his strength was again evident as he held off Damien Delaney and then turned Dann before curling a wonderful left-footed finish beyond Speroni.
From there, the second-half resembled a training exercise. City retained control of possession but were unwilling to take chances and rarely threatened to further extend their lead. The only moment of slight concern arose in the 66th minute when Touré was taken off as a precaution on his return to the team. His discomfort looked minor but City will still be anxious this morning to ensure there has been no reaction to coming back after only two full training sessions.
To his credit, Pulis did try to offer new problems to City’s defence but a glance at the respective benches told its own story. While Pellegrini could have brought on Alvaro Negredo or Stevan Jovetic, Pulis’s attacking options were Dwight Gayle, Glenn Murray and Thomas Ince. With the exception of a Puncheon shot that prompted a diving save from Joe Hart, they never looked like turning their industry into clear chances.
Six weeks ago, Chelsea had looked in command of the title race but have probably blown it after defeats against Aston Villa, Sunderland and Palace. Then Liverpool appeared to have moved into an unassailable position following 11 successive wins. Now the pendulum has swung to City. They have not led the league since January but the destination of the title is back in their hands.